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  • Writer's pictureT. Brookshire

Filaments to Phones: The Impactful Legacy of Lewis Latimer, Unsung Hero of Electrical Innovation

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

Lewis Latimer (1848–1928) is considered one of the most important Black inventors for the number of inventions he produced and patents he secured, but also for the importance of his best-known discovery: a longer-lasting filament for the electric light. He also helped Alexander Graham Bell obtain the patent for the first telephone. Latimer was in great demand for his expertise later in his career as electric light spread across the country. Indeed, without Latimer's help and expertise, Thomas Edison & Alexander Graham Bell may not have received patents for their life-changing inventions.

Latimer Helps Alexander Graham Bell

Latimer was very critical in helping Alexander Graham Bell develop the first telephone. Latimer actually drafted and submitted the patent application for the telephone on Bell's behalf. (I think we can all make proper conclusions from this.) It was submitted on Feb. 14, 1876, just hours before another application was made for a similar device. With Latimer's help, Bell won the patent rights to the telephone.

Latimer Improves Upon the Lightbulb

After 11 years working as a patent lawyer for inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell and Hiram Maxim (in his United States Electric Lighting Company), Latimer started to work with Thomas Edison's General Electric in the late 1880s as a patent expert.

Edison’s light bulb had major flaws and weaknesses which caused the bulb to burn out after a few days. Because of Edison’s carbonized bamboo filament, when electricity ran through the filament, the bulbs became so hot that they would literally explode. Latimer created a way to make the carbon filament more durable by encasing it in cardboard envelope that prevented the carbon from breaking up, giving the bulbs a much longer life while making them less expensive and more efficient.

Latimer filed a patent for the process for efficiently manufacturing the carbon filament in 1881.

Latimer also supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. His other patented inventions included the first Toilet for Railroad Cars and a forerunner of the Air Conditioner.

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