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Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848,
six years after his parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, had run away from slavery in Virginia. They were determined to be free and that their children be born on free soil. Because of his light complexion, George was able to pose as a plantation owner with the darker-skinned Rebecca as his slave. Shortly after arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, he was recognized as a fugitive and jailed while his wife was taken to a safe hiding place. The arrest was protested vigorously by the community. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped to Massachusetts several years earlier, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison spoke forcefully against the arrest. There was a trial, and the attempts to recapture George and return him to Virginia caused considerable agitation in Boston. When the trial judge ruled that Latimer still belonged to his Virginia owner, an African-American minister paid $400 for his release. Although free, George was still extremely poor, working as a barber, paper-hanger and in other odd jobs to support his wife, three sons, and one daughter.
Lewis Latimer, the youngest child, attended grammar school and was an excellent student who loved to read and draw. Most of his time, though, was spent working with his father, which was typical of children in the 19th century. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that a slave named Dred Scott could not be considered a free man although he had lived in a free state. George Latimer disappeared shortly after the decision became known. Because he had no official papers to prove he was a free man, he possibly feared for his safety and that of his family.
With his father gone and his mother struggling to keep the family together, Lewis falsified his age and joined the U.S. Navy in 1864 when he was sixteen years old. When the Civil War ended he was honorably discharged and returned to Boston to seek employment. In 1868 he secured a job as an office boy in the Crosby and Gould patent law firm, a company that specialized in helping inventors protect their patents. By closely observing draftsmen at work and reading books on the subject, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing. He learned to skillfully use the vital tools of the trade, such as T squares, triangles, compasses, and rulers, and mastered the art of drawing to scale. Since all of the drawings were done by hand and in ink, it was very important that a draftsman not make mistakes. Latimer's drawings in this medium are as beautiful as works of art. After several months of studying on his own, he requested and was given an opportunity by the firm to show what he could do. Upon discovering that Latimer was indeed a skilled draftsman, he was promoted from office boy, earning a salary of $3.00 per week, to draftsman at $20.00.
In the period immediately following the Civil War, important scientific advances occurred in America. There was an explosion of inventions and new uses of technology, and inventors were securing thousands of patents in growing industries. While working at the Boston firm, Latimer met
Alexander Graham Bell who hired him to draw the plans for a new invention, the telephone. Bell was in
a race to have his invention patented before anyone else registered a similar device. By working with
him late at night, Latimer was able to provide Bell with the blueprints and expertise in submitting
applications that allowed him to file his telephone patent on February 14, 1876, just a few hours earlier
than that of a rival inventor. They had won the race!
In 1880 Latimer began work as a mechanical draftsman for Hiram Maxim, an inventor and founder of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. In his new job, Latimer was given the opportunity to become familiar with the field of electric incandescent lighting, an area in which there was fierce competition to secure patents. In addition to his work with light bulbs and lamps, he went to U.S. cities and abroad supervising installation and production of Maxim equipment.
In 1884 he was invited to work for Maxim's arch rival, Thomas Alva Edison, in New York. An expert electrical engineer, Latimer's work for Edison was critical for the following reasons: his thorough knowledge of electric lighting and
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