Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lewis Latimer: the light touch

Creation: Spring & Easter
A candle burns itself out to give light to others. (Africa)

I value electric light the most when I lose it, as when the power was off in my house for eight weeks following Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Today even if the power is off for a few hours, many of us feel unable to function. We owe a lot to Lewis Latimer.

He was born in 1848 to George and Rebecca Latimer who fled Virginia to escape slavery. When Lewis was a child, slave catchers held George and threatened to return him to the slave master. His adopted community in Massachusetts raised $400 to buy his freedom, and George took his family into hiding out of fear of being re-enslaved. So Lewis Latimer grew up poor, and with virtually no formal education.

Latimer enlisted in the navy during the American Civil War. He was only 15 years old at the time, and so he forged the age on his birth certificate. When he left the navy, he went to work as an office boy for solicitors who specialized in patents.

Latimer taught himself to draw, and became so skilled that he drafted the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application. He then went to work with the U.S. Electric Light Company, Bell’s main competitor. Here he invented a method of making filaments to improve the quality of electric lamps. He also supervised the 1881 installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.

In 1884, Latimer started working as draftsman for Thomas Edison. He was a draftsman and assistant manager, and the only Black person in the engineering division of Edison’s company. He was also Edison’s expert witness in his many lawsuits related to electric lights.

Besides being an inventor, Latimer was a poet, artist, writer, and flautist. Some of his mechanical drawings were as beautiful as works of art, and he wrote a book of poems as well as the first book on electrical lighting.

For his genius in helping to start up the electric light industry, Latimer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

No comments:


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at