A New York City Museum Shines a Spotlight on Inventor Lewis Latimer's Legacy
On a residential street in Flushing, Queens, dense with midrise brick apartment buildings and a high-school athletic field, a modest Queen Anne–style wood-frame house stands nestled inside a well-kept garden enclosed by a tall iron fence. The home’s friendly yellow clapboard facade invites the curiosity of unfamiliar passersby, while locals move along without a glance.
A plaque on a streetcorner signpost features the portrait of a bespectacled Black man dressed in Victorian-era clothes, alongside detailed mechanical drawings. The plaque’s tight biography describes the man’s importance as an American inventor and draftsman. In this distinctly diverse corner of New York, with its multilingual billboards, churches, and schools, a hand-painted sign behind the iron fence at 34-41 137th St. proclaims: Lewis Latimer House Museum.
Lewis H. Latimer was an African American scientist with virtually no peers. A highly skilled, mostly self-taught draftsman and inventor, he wrote of having penned patent drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. He also played a crucial role in Thomas Edison’s operations, along with patenting several of his own inventions—two of which vastly improved the practicality and durability of Edison’s incandescent light bulb. Latimer developed a new way of mounting carbon filaments within the bulb, and also came up with a cheaper, faster method of manufacturing the filaments. These innovations enabled the light bulb’s cost-effective mass production, radically transforming its utility from limited industrial applications to common household commodity.
When measured against the social backdrop of Reconstruction’s persistent racial tensions, Latimer’s achievements are astounding. He was a true Renaissance man: an author, a public orator, a gifted visual artist, and a founder of Flushing’s Unitarian Universalist Church as well as the Edison Pioneers (a society of former Edison employees).
He was also a devout humanist, as reflected in his letter to the National Conference of Colored Men in 1895: “If our cause be made the common cause, and all our claims and demands be founded on justice and humanity, recognizing that we must wrong no man in winning our rights, I have faith to believe that the Nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the Constitution.”
The obituary that ran in The New York Times on Tuesday, December 13, 1928, described Lewis Latimer as “an electrical engineer widely known in the United States.” Yet his name and his contributions have been grossly overlooked for the past hundred years. Buried beside his wife, Mary, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Latimer has an unmarked grave.
Now, a fierce tribe of Latimer devotees is working to illuminate his legacy. And the clapboard house in which he and Mary Latimer raised their family is the nucleus of that effort.
In 1842, Latimer's father, George Latimer, became an icon of the abolitionist movement. His highly publicized escape from slavery in Virginia with his wife, Rebecca; his quick capture in Boston; and his imprisonment and eventual emancipation were documented in a widely read series of abolitionist-written articles. Rebecca Latimer was not captured, and once George was free the Latimers settled in Massachusetts. Lewis, their youngest child, was born in 1848.
George Latimer left home when Lewis was about 10. (Different theories exist as to why; one is that he left to protect his family in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision.) But his celebrity may have bolstered his son’s tenacity. As a teenager, Lewis Latimer enlisted in the Union Navy, serving as a landsman on the USS Massasoit until the end of the Civil War. After an honorable discharge, he returned to the Boston area and found employment in the patent office of Crosby, Halsted, and Gould, where he absorbed the techniques of mechanical drawing. Roughly around the time he married Mary Wilson Lewis in 1873, Latimer rose to the role of head draftsman. His drafting skill drew the attention of the country’s top inventors, who sought his expertise for their patent applications. In 1874, with Charles W. Brown, he co-patented an improved water closet for railroad cars.
Latimer’s materials for his own patents—including the carbon filament advances and a precursor to the modern air conditioning unit—displayed the depth of his artistry. Electrical lighting competitors Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison each hired him to help develop their inventions. In 1890 Latimer published a book called Incandescent Electrical Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System, considered the premier manual of its kind. Lewis Latimer worked for myriad electrical companies great and small, moving his young family from Boston to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to London, and then to Brooklyn and Queens, New York.
The New York City borough of Queens is home to one of the most ethnically diverse populations in America, and the Queens neighborhood of Flushing has been an epicenter of modern life for centuries. In 1657, an act of protest known as the Flushing Remonstrance called for protections of religious freedom for all, providing eventual inspiration for the Bill of Rights. The gradual development of housing and infrastructure helped Flushing become a vital commercial hub of the Industrial Age and a choice destination for immigrants to the United States.
So it was a fitting place for the forward-thinking Latimer to end up. By the time he bought his house in Flushing in 1902, his expertise in the elite field of electrical engineering was well established. Latimer had long believed in the intrinsic connection between art and science, and at one point was invited to address the Bridgeport Scientific Society on the subject. This speech, The Practical Relation of Art to Science, could be considered the first public treatise on the fundamentals of STEAM education: encompassing science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. The same ideal carries over into modern curriculum initiatives and drives the educational programming at the Lewis Latimer House Museum.
Ten years ago, Ran Yan came to the United States from China as a student in pursuit of her master’s degree in historic preservation planning. Immediately after graduation, she started a challenging fellowship that later evolved into her full-time job as the museum’s executive director.
“Frank Vagnone was the director of the Historic House Trust of New York City. He’d started a pilot project called LatimerNOW, to reinvigorate the Latimer House and rethink how historic house museums could re-engage with communities,” she explains. She began her fellowship at LatimerNOW in 2014, along with another fellow, Monica O. Montgomery, and they worked on developing more robust programming at the site. “When I began that fellowship in 2014, the staff was made up of volunteers, and the museum lacked the funding to operate on a regular basis,” Yan says.
“Lewis Latimer was one of the very first African Americans to break the corporate glass ceiling and ascend the ladder of major American businesses. That's an extraordinary thing.”Hugh Price
A series of grants provided enough money to hire Yan part-time in 2016 and then as executive director in 2017. In several short years, Yan and her colleagues created a program of STEAM enrichment classes for students of all ages. The focus is the Tinker Lab, where school groups work on short- and long-term projects that emphasize hands-on creativity involving disciplines such as circuitry, robotics, game design, and coding. Electronic musical instruments are among the students’ favorite projects.
Since the pandemic began, the site has strengthened its online offerings. “We’ve been able to switch to virtual programming very quickly, thanks to my education team and the teaching artists we work with,” Yan says. “We’re redesigning our online curriculum to provide more structured tools that will help teachers in place, rather than having to bring the students to us. We’ve connected with classrooms and partner museums as far away as California and Texas.”
The museum just finished an adult reading and discussion series focused on the work of James Baldwin, and partners with artists and writers of color on workshops and projects in line with its mission “to preserve Latimer’s legacy and offer his life story as a point of departure from which to examine issues of race, class, immigration, and contemporary events.”
Latimer’s great-grandnephew, Hugh Price, is a New Yorker and former National Urban League president/CEO who currently serves as vice chair of the board of the Lewis Latimer House Museum. His familiarity with the house dates to his college days, when his family would visit his great-aunt Louise Latimer, one of Lewis Latimer’s two daughters.
“She lived in the house, which she inherited from her father,” Price says. “Louise often tried to engage me in family history lessons, but I was too preoccupied with a girl I was dating to sit down and pay attention. There’s all sorts of stuff I could have learned from her, and I didn’t do that. But my mother, Charlotte Schuster Price, and her sister, Violet Schuster Royster, were both deep into ancestral research, and I’d grown up hearing all about Lewis Latimer.”
Lewis Latimer’s granddaughter (and Louise’s niece), Winifred Latimer Norman, inherited the house with her brother and father in 1963 and subsequently sold it. In 1988 it was threatened with demolition by developers until Norman organized local community stakeholders to try to save it. They called themselves the Committee to Save the Latimer House. With help from then-Queens Borough President Claire Schulman, the General Electric Foundation, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the committee arranged to have the house transported roughly 1.5 miles from its original location, 64 Holly St. (now 137-53 Holly Ave.) in Flushing, to its current site. The property is owned by the city; the committee, renamed the Lewis H. Latimer Fund, administers the museum as a nonprofit organization.
“Lewis Latimer was one of the very first African Americans to break the corporate glass ceiling and ascend the ladder of major American businesses,” Price says. “That’s an extraordinary thing. You don’t get there in 1880 being a revolutionary. He was a master at figuring out how to get ahead and be successful.”
Price says he enjoys applying his executive skills to benefit the museum. “In early 2020, Ran tracked me down. I was retired, and I had no more excuses. I feel like I’m giving back to Winifred and to Lewis Latimer, providing the support that our extraordinary director deserves.”
Much of the Lewis H. Latimer archive is stored at the Queens Public Library. But the house still contains a highly curated collection. Large display boards offer detailed timelines and histories; artifacts include some of Latimer’s hand tools, his own lamps, and samples of his technical artistry, as well as fine art portraiture. Examples of his published poetry, scientific writing, notebooks, and private correspondence with Frederick Douglass are also on view. A spacious room at the rear of the house is set with long tables and many chairs, void of decoration or clutter—a blank canvas. This is the museum’s Tinker Lab, designed to inspire imagination.
Outreach efforts are ongoing. In addition to funding the site’s expanding educational programs, the current capital campaign targets the 2023 launch of a new permanent exhibit in honor of Lewis H. Latimer’s 175th birthday, with high-tech interactive displays that will aim to engage viewers more deeply while more closely representing Latimer’s commitment to innovation.
Among the site’s financial supporters is the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which gave $50,000 in 2020 to help develop a marketing strategy. Since the fall of 2021, the Action Fund has also been working with Yan and her team to assist with establishing a business plan, providing another $50,000 via a partnership with the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation. “That’s really critical for smaller institutions like ours,” Yan says. Other funding for the museum comes from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the New York City Council; the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; the New York State Council on the Arts; and the Simons Foundation.
Andrea McFarlane is a librarian and teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 56 Lewis H. Latimer School, opened in 1968. She serves as the school’s unofficial in-house historian and is a huge fan of the Lewis Latimer House Museum.
“Some of our students have never been inside a house!” she says. “It’s wonderful to see the look of excitement and awe on the children’s faces, especially when they see the actual tools and equipment that Lewis Latimer used. Being there is very different from learning from books.”
McFarlane enthusiastically states her agenda. “We’re looking for the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and inventors who know how to work with their hands. The next generation of creators and producers.”
In a field trip journal and book created by Ms. Nelson’s first-grade class, titled "Lewis Latimer, An Illuminating Inventor," one of the children is quoted: “Lewis Latimer made the world a better place by making light so we can see.”
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, a native of Queens, represents her hometown’s 6th Congressional District. Currently in her fifth term, she’s a seasoned supporter of STEAM education and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, as well as the Lewis Latimer House Museum. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, she’s working with several Congressional caucuses to push more federal grant money toward developing diverse school curricula that would include learning about historical figures such as Latimer.
“There’s a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see,” Meng asserts. “Many students from underrepresented communities may not have necessarily seen scientists or artists in their families. Many students in this country, and in my district, might be the first in their family to complete high school or higher education. They may not appreciate their own possibilities.”
“It's wonderful to see the look of excitement and awe on the children's faces, especially when they see the actual tools and equipment that Lewis Latimer used. Being there is very different from learning from books.”Andrea McFarlane
According to Ran Yan, the visual arts are an important community engagement tool for the museum. In 2017, she reached out to the Brooklyn-raised, Afro-Caribbean American artist Shervone Neckles, whose work explores her interest in science and history and is influenced by her Grenadian heritage.
Yan asked her to submit a proposal for an installation at the museum. “And I didn’t even know who Lewis Latimer was!” Neckles says. “I thought, How is it possible I don’t know about this place or this man? That’s when I began researching his story.”
Neckles says this research not only informs her practice, but also inspires her to be more audacious. “I keep re-encountering Latimer in different ways as I talk about my experience learning about him. It feels like time has folded back on itself and I’m getting to share energy and space with him after 173 years.”
In the summer of 2019, her Beacon Sails piece was installed in the museum’s garden. It was the less elaborate of the two proposals she had submitted. That same fall, Brooklyn’s Beam Center, a nonprofit focused on teaming with artists, engineers, and educators to empower young people, requested she submit something big. Her project BEACON, which had been too expensive for the Lewis Latimer House Museum, was a perfect fit.
Beam then partnered with the museum, enlisting young, paid fellows to learn the skills required to construct and assemble BEACON, a monumental steel work lit with interactive LEDs. The sculpture made its first appearance in the garden of the Lewis Latimer House Museum, and it now resides among the bustling crosswalks of downtown Brooklyn, near another former home of Latimer’s.
The piece’s goal, like that of the museum, is to spread the word about this remarkable inventor and his lasting contributions to the way we live today. “We’re working on getting BEACON to travel, to spark people’s curiosity about Latimer’s legacy,” Neckles says. “Studying him, and his family lineage, you get introduced to local and American history.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated on Feb. 27, 2022
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