Peter Takes on History
September 3, 1838
Polymath Lewis Latimer
This is going to be a two-fer. Two days in history: September 3rd and September 4th. While researching, I found these two stories kinda overlap. Kinda. Tangentially let’s say.
Beginning with September 3rd, 1838, the day Frederick Douglass became a free man. He began his escape from slavery boarding a train in Baltimore dressed as a sailor carrying ID and a protective pass obtained for him. In Wilmington, Delaware he boarded a steamboat to the free city of Philadelphia. Another train took him to New York City where he entered an Underground Railroad safe house less than 24 hour later. Douglass later wrote, “I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe.”
That same day he sent word to his fiancé, a free black woman back in Baltimore named Anna Murray. Eleven days later, on the 15th of September 1838, they were married. He and Anna moved to Massachusetts where his passion and freshly discovered skill as an orator immediately catapulted the 20 year old to the forefront of the Northern abolitionist movement and brought him to the attention of another famous abolitionist, writer and publisher William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was once called “the strongest man in America” because what he wrote all civilized men “were destined to believe.”
Four years after Frederick Douglass fled to Massachusetts another African American, George Latimer also escaped. George was light skinned enough that he was able to book a ship’s passage as a freeman with his dark-skinned wife Rebecca posing as his slave. They made it to Massachusetts only to run into a former employee of George’s owner. George’s arrest was big news and his cause was quickly taken up by Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Despite their pleadings, George was convicted as a fugitive and, because slavery was still the law of the land, returned to his owner in Virginia. But, thanks to the attention Douglass and Garrison brought to his case, a Massachusetts church raised enough money to buy his freedom and George Latimer was returned to Massachusetts. Four years later George and Rebecca Latimer’s fourth child was born.
Here’s the two-fer I promised. On September 4th, 1848 Lewis Howard Latimer was born. Lewis was a remarkable boy who developed many skills and interests. He was an excellent writer who penned poems and plays. He learned to play the flute and showed great skill as an artist. But remember, though former slaves were free, they were, more often than not, dirt poor!
So, when the civil war broke out 15 year old Lewis Latimer saw a chance to earn $2.50 a week for his family. He lied about his age and joined the Navy.
After the war, with an honorable discharge in hand, he was able to secure a job as an office boy at a Boston Patent Law Firm making $3 a week. By studying patent applications and observing draftsmen at the firm Lewis Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing and quickly rose to the position of head draughtsman and patent writer making $20 per week.
The time between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th Century was an explosion of inventive energy. Immigrant’s poured into the US, increasing the ranks of the consumer and filling the industrial job necessary to produce the needs and wants of our citizens. The number of urbanites in America quadrupled between 1880 and 1900!
Latimer’s skill as a draftsman and his knowledge of the patent process put him in high demand.
He was soon approached by an inventor, a teacher in a New York School for the Deaf, who found himself falling behind in a race to design and complete his patent application before a rival inventor could beat him out. The inventor’s name was Alexander Graham Bell. Lewis Latimer did all the original patent drawings for the telephone ... and in record time ... helping Bell win the patent.
Though slavery had officially ended, it was still a difficult time for people of color. Latimer’s family decided there would be strength in numbers and gathered in upstate NY where Lewis Latimer took a job with the US Electric Company. Electric light was just taking off and though Thomas Edison was the early leader, his light bulbs had a big problem. They didn’t last, often burning out in less than a week.
At the US Electric Company Lewis Latimer invented a more robust carbon filament that outlasted Edison’s and could be made more quickly and cheaply than Edison’s. Latimer went on to become perhaps the foremost electrical engineer in America going on to install electrical infrastructure in Philadelphia, New York, Montreal and London.
Edison did not like being outplayed and hired Latimer away from US Electric making him his chief patent artist, writer, researcher and patent defender. Latimer, the only African American member of the elite engineering group Edison Pioneers, held this exalted position at Edison’s right hand until he retired from General Electric in 1920 at age 72.
From Frederick Douglas to George Latimer to Lewis Latimer, it is remarkable to me how straight a line can be drawn through history, invention and the men who brought light to America.