Black History Month - Lewis Latimer

by Willow Cohn, Outreach & Education EcoFellow 

The Center for EcoTechnology is known for sharing information on the most efficient and cost-effective technologies available! This month, we celebrate Black History Month by honoring a brilliant engineer and inventor, Lewis Latimer, who invented new technology improving the lightbulb and led the way to a brighter future.

Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848, six years after his parents had escaped slavery in Virginia. After serving for the U.S. Navy in the Civil War, he moved to Boston and taught himself mechanical drawing while working at a patent law firm. His talents were recognized and he was promoted to head draftsmen. Eventually, in 1880 Latimer began working as a draftsman and assistant manager for Hiram Maxim, who was a founder of the U.S. Electric Light Company in Brooklyn, New York. The post-Civil war era was a booming time for technology and engineering, and many people were working to develop new technologies to help improve everyday living. One of these inventors was Thomas Edison. Edison had invented a version of the light bulb, but it had a major problem- it only lasted a few days. While working for Maxim, Latimer invented a new design that encased the carbon filament in an envelope which prevented the carbon filament from breaking, thereby providing a much longer life to the bulb, making the bulbs less expensive and more efficient. This innovation enabled electric lighting to be installed in homes and throughout streets.

Latimer’s abilities in electric lighting became well known and he was hired to help major cities begin wiring their streets for electric lighting. Latimer supervised the installation of the first electric plants in Philadelphia, New York City, and Montreal.

Throughout the rest of his life, Latimer continued to try to devise ways of improving everyday living for the public, eventually working in efforts to improve the civil rights of African American citizens within the United States.

Lewis Latimer died on December 11, 1928 and left behind a legacy of achievement and leadership that much of the world owes thanks.

Thanks to the early efforts by Latimer and his colleagues, the technology of the light bulb has continuously improved over time. Currently, the most energy efficient and cost-effective light bulb on the market is the LED bulb.

LEDs have incredibly long lifespans, outlasting both incandescent (by 30 times!) and Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) bulbs. The Department of Energy estimates an incandescent bulb’s lifespan at about 1,000 hours of use, a CFL’s at 8,000-10,000 hours, and an LED’s at a whopping 30,000 hours of use!

Traditionally, LEDs have had a higher up-front cost than CFL’s and incandescent bulbs. This is still generally the case, but they are steadily getting cheaper as they become more popular. Now you can purchase a standard LED bulb from many retailers for around $5.00. Remember that in the long run, LEDs more than pay for themselves. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 12-watt LED bulb costs approximately $1.75 to operate for four hours per day for a year (assuming electric costs of 10 cents/kWh).

Latimer’s lightbulb technology was once the most efficient and cost-effective on the market. As this technology has evolved and improved through innovation, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the ideas we have improved upon. That’s why we celebrate the life and achievements of Lewis Latimer and his pioneering work in light bulb technology!

Happy Black History Month and for more information on LED Lighting check out this blog!