This month, America commemorates Black History Month, a remembrance of the important role of black Americans in the nation’s history and a celebration of their achievements. At NETL, we especially want to recognize the contributions of black Americans to energy science and innovation.
In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson announced the celebration of Negro History Week, which is widely considered the precursor to Black History Month.
Black History Month traces its roots to 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a historian, author, and journalist, created what was then known as Negro History Week. The son of former slaves, Carter believed black Americans and their accomplishments were too often left out of the educational curricula of the time. He chose the second week in February to coincide with observations of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Since then, this celebration of achievement has continued to grow in stature and tradition. Every U.S. president since 1976 has officially designated February as Black History Month.
Another eminent African American, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, explained the purpose of studying history when he wrote that “history tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be.”
The story of Lewis Howard Latimer, inventor and innovator in the electric lighting industry, is part of NETL’s commemoration of Black History Month because his vision, success, and contributions inspire us to continue toward “where we still must go.”
Born in Massachusetts in 1848, Latimer was the son of a freedom-seeking slaves, a Civil War veteran, a self-taught scientist and draftsman, and one of the select group of men who created the electric power industry more than 100 years ago. As an organization dedicated to discovering, maturing, and integrating new ideas that improve our nation’s energy and power needs, NETL and its employees are particularly inspired by Latimer’s work during this special month. Our experts who conduct and manage research to improve power distribution and advance lighting stand on this giant’s shoulders.
Born in Massachusetts in 1948, Lewis Howard Latimer was a self-taught draftsman, inventor, and one of the creators of America’s power industry.
Latimer began his professional career working with Alexander Graham Bell, drawing plans for the first telephone and helping to prepare Bell’s first patent applications. In the early 1880s, while working with inventor Hiram Maxim, Latimer supervised the installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, London, and Montreal. By 1884, he was working with Thomas Edison to improve Edison’s incandescent electric light.
Latimer’s diverse inventions include a water closet for railroad cars, an improved electric lamp, an apparatus for cooling and disinfecting, and, most important, a long-lasting carbon filament that solved the problem of the electric current rapidly destroying an incandescent light’s filament. In 1890, encouraged by Edison, Latimer co-authored Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System, an extremely popular book that explained, in an easy-to-understand way, how an incandescent lamp produces light.
On February 11, 1918, shortly before his death at the age of 80, Latimer became a charter member of what became known as the Edison Pioneers, “the creators of the electric industry.”
Throughout his career, Latimer devised ways to improve everyday living for the public and promote the civil rights of African Americans. Those are worthy and important goals we should all continue to pursue with the same energy, vision, and ability of Lewis Latimer.
When Dr. Woodson established a special time to highlight the under-recognized work of African Americans, one of his goals was to have the information more widely included in the teaching of American history generally. By absorbing and retelling the stories of men and women like Latimer, we help support that worthy vision.