Illuminating African American History

Inventor Lewis H Latimer

A Bright Idea Glows in Brooklyn: Shervone Neckles (center), an interdisciplinary artist, educator and community activist of Grenadian descent, is a beacon of light for illuminating Black History in Brooklyn. She’s also engaging the interests of talented teens and impressing the Long Island University campus with her young team’s special tribute to Black inventor Lewis H. Latimer, inventor of the lightbulb filament, who lived in the late 19th century in Fort Greene. Here, standing in front of the 12-ft interactive LED installation from, left to right, are Johanna Rodriguez, Parker Mason (boy), Mitchell Dose, Brian Cohen, Ms. Neckles, Phillip Castillo and Regina Meyer, Kamaari Blake.


The Beam Center staff and youth, including Project Fellow middle and high school student artists learned metal-working, welding, circuitry, cement/polymer casting, mold-making to shed light on Lewis’s achievements (which include air conditioners). The sculpture is fittingly titled BEACON. It is a steel motion-activated sculpture in Downtown Brooklyn’s Albee Square. Ms. Neckles’ says, “It symbolizes possibility, innovation and self-expression.” Something Neckles shares with Lewis, who lived within walking distance to the installation,1893-1902, on Adelphi Street between Willoughby Street and Myrtle Avenue. The exhibition is on view, now through Spring 2022.

Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP) and DUMBO Improvement District (Dumbo) last week unveiled a public art sculpture, BEACON, a twelve-foot-tall steel, motion-activated LED sculpture honoring inventor Lewis H. Latimer designed to activate the community through art. 
Inspired by African American inventor Lewis H. Latimer’s 1880s patent drawings for the electric lamp and method for manufacturing carbon filament in incandescent bulbs, the BEACON is being installed at Albee Square in celebration of Latimer’s 173rd birthday by Artist Shervone Neckles in partnership with Youth Empowerment Organization, Beam Center. Built by a team of Beam Center’s Fellows – a cohort of NYC youth who learned metal-working, welding, circuitry, cement/polymer casting, mold-making, and collaboration – the installation’s light stands as a beacon of self-expression, possibility, and community for our city. BEACON engages the public in local history and commemorates Latimer’s legacy as a Black inventor and his contributions to society and the electrical engineering field.

Spotlight on History: African American inventor Lewis H. Latimer is known throughout the world for his many inventions, including the incandescent electric lightbulb and the telephone but recent local events have cast light on his association with  Brooklyn.

The new public art installation site, Beacon, in Downtown Brooklyn’s Albee Square, is within walking distance from where he and his wife Mary Latimer and their two daughters, Emma Jeanette and Louise Rebecca, lived from 1893 to 1902 at 184 Adelphi Street between Willoughby St. and Myrtle Avenue. The installation was most recently on view in Flushing, Queens at the Lewis Latimer House Museum where Latimer raised his family from 1902 till his death in 1928.

Latimer’s Brooklyn connections also include pioneering work as an engineer at the Brooklyn Edison Electric Light Company. He had the distinction of being the only African American member of “Edison’s Pioneers” – Thomas Edison’s team of inventors. The Brooklyn Company of Brooklyn provided electricity to the homes and businesses of Brooklyn and fabricated conductors for other plants throughout the world.

But there was another side to Latimer.  He was an activist.

According to the myrtleavenue.org/black-fort-greene-resident-Lewis -Latimer website, Latimer was also a member of the ‘Students Club of Brooklyn: a society comprised entirely of prominent black citizens dedicated to the best efforts, education, science, social and political economy, pedagogy, history, and questions affecting the colored American. In 1901, Latimer joined his colleagues at the headquarters of the SCB (then located at 184 Adelphi Street) to listen to an address presented  by its president,  inventor, Samuel R. Stratton (maternal grandfather of the singer Lena Horne) and engage in a general discussion regarding a proposition to offer formal education to black people along the lines of “manual training courses and in the trades, thus lifting them from the lowly level of much of their labor and bring them into a condition to better meet competition.”

The website notes that Latimer, also painted, played the flute, and wrote plays and poetry.   “Among the collection of his poems is one written in tribute to his  wife who passed in 1924. (See below)  We present Latimer’s poem here as a healing message —   in this month with its spotlight on violence towards women — offering a counterpoint to that tragic theme.

Ebon Venus
By Lewis Latimer
“Let others boast of maidens fair,
Of eyes of blue and golden hair;
My heart like needles ever true
Turns to the maid of ebon hue.
I love her form of matchless grace,
The dark brown beauty of her face,
Her lips that speak of love’s delight,
Her eyes that gleam as stars at night.
O’er marble Venus let them rage,
Who sets the fashions of the age;
Each to his taste, but as for me,
My Venus shall be ebony.”

INSTALLATION
LOCATION DETAILS
Beacon will be on display to the public beginning October 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Albee Square, located at the intersection of Fulton Street, DeKalb Avenue and Albee Square West in Downtown Brooklyn and is accessible by the 2,3, B, Q and R trains. 
 

Lewis Howard Latimer Inventions
By Marc Zorn

Lewis Howard Latimer was born to a family that were slaves. However, this did not prevent him from going on and becoming a prolific inventor. His inventions hold so much importance to date, he was eventually inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Religion was an important part of Latimer’s life. He became a founding member of the Unitarian Church in his community. At the age of 15, Latimer joined the Navy and started his career as an office assistant at a local patent firm.
In addition to inventing many devices that contributed to the modernizing of America and making life comfortable for millions around the world, Mr. Latimer was a source of success to three famous inventors  – Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison. In Brooklyn, P.S. 56, situated at Gates and Downing on the border of Bedford Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill is named for him.  

Here’s a look at some
of his inventions:

  1. The Railroad Car Toilet
    Less than 10 years after joining the patent law firm, Latimer was part of the patent of a railroad toilet that was used for train cars at the time. The purpose of the invention was to reduce the drafts that people felt when opening up the toilet as the train rolled along the tracks and would prevent dust and debris from flying up to smack someone using it in the posterior.
  2. The Telephone
    Although Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, the patent submission process wouldn’t have gone as smoothly as it did without Latimer’s help. Graham hired Latimer to draw up all the necessary drawings that the patent office required in order to approve the patent. With Latimer’s help, Graham was able to personally deliver the application to the patent office just hours ahead of his competitors and won the patent rights.
    Because of the detailed drafts that were submitted to the patent office, there are many who believe that Latimer was the actual inventor of the telephone. He defended Bell’s claims to the invention in court when challenges were made.
  3. The Installation of Lights in Major City
    In 1881, Latimer was hired by the founder of the US Electric Light Company to be an assistant manager. It was here that he began the process of creating his most famous invention that led to his induction into the Hall of Fame. He sold the first carbon filaments to his employer that would eliminate the initial paper filaments. During this period of time, Latimer also supervised the installation of lights in many major cities, including London, New York City, and Philadelphia.
  4. The Filaments in Light Bulbs
    One of the most famous inventions that Latimer created was the improved manufacturing process that allowed for a better method of producing the filaments. There are the little strands of metal inside a traditional lightbulb that lit up when electricity was introduced to the bulb. That invention helped him land a job with the Edison Electric Company as a draftsman, which is where he stayed as a patent consultant to law firms.
  5. Air Conditioning
    Taking what he had learned from the invention process of the water closet, Latimer also invented a forerunner of the modern air conditioner that we use today. It was a window unit, designed for apartments, and a unique feature was that it was intended to deodorize and disinfect the room in which it was installed.


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