Black History Month: The accomplishments of inventor Lewis Latimer

NEW YORK (WABC) -- As we celebrate Black History Month, Eyewitness News brings you the story of one of the great inventors from the turn of the 20th century.

Lewis Latimer's inventions from a century ago have made the world a better place in many ways.

To truly understand who Latimer was, first thing's first -- he is the thread connecting Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.

"He made a statement about how you climb and claw your way up the career tree," said Hugh Price, great-grandnephew of Latimer. "He was adept at figuring out what made organizations tick and how to persuade white bosses to hire him."

Born in 1848, Latimer was the son of escaped slaves.

Eyewitness News met with Price in what was Latimer's home on 137th Street in Flushing, Queens. It's whereas a college student, Price often visited.

Price said the more he discovers, the more he's in awe.

"There were times when his job disappeared and he had to revert back to being a barber, this inventor worked as a barber to support his family," Price said.

Latimer, a self-taught draftsman, worked for Bell and played a critical role in securing the first patent for the telephone. That expertise is worth its weight in gold.

In 1879, Latimer joined U.S. Electric Lighting Company, which was owned by a fierce rival of Edison, who at the time was racing to land a patent for his version of the lightbulb.

But Latimer was about to have his own lightbulb moment.

"Latimer came up with a carbon filament for the bulb, which prolonged its life, was more durable, was more economical and more energy-efficient," Price said.

Edison eventually hired Latimer at his company, which later became GE.

His scope as an inventor was far-reaching, developing an early version of an AC unit and improving the toilet system on rail cars.

"He had strong beliefs in helping other people, all of his inventions were to better common people's everyday lives," said Ran Yan, Lewis Latimer House Museum, Executive Director.

Latimer lived in the Queens home with his wife and daughters until his death in 1928.

As for Price, in a full-circle moment, there's a tremendous sense of pride knowing Latimer's role in helping build America.

"Who knew when Jay-Z was 14 that he would become who he became," Price said. "You don't know where the talent resides, and how it blossoms if it's given the opportunity and support."

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