Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Mystery of Edison's Light Bulb and how it got screwed... Or was it Lewis Latimer that got screwed?

As I was growing up in East Texas, my father (Dr. V.M. Holland) made it a point to show me the importance of learning history.

When this could be related to invention and tools, that really got his passions stirred up, "Fred, what do you think that tool was used for on a farm?", he would ask me as we walked through a museum or sat down at at a cafe table and looked up a the old farming tools pegged to the walls. "That is a _______, and I used to use it to _______, when I was going up. Notice the _________, that made it easier to ______________."

As a high science teacher, I lived out my dreams of being a scientific researcher or a great inventor like Thomas Edison, who was one of my childhood heros.

In science, there is a distinction made between "science" and "technology", technology being only the application of true science. It is implied that technology is some how less than science, which encompasses the actual discovery of the knowledge that leads to the practical application of that knowledge, which is invention. Invention is technology. Most of my life has been around the promotion of technology and not it's invention.

One of classroom assignments given a science teacher is the promotion of monthly education history months, like National Black History Month, for my example here.

Most high school science teachers blow off this task as "too elementary for high school instruction... grade school stuff... they should all ready know that...".

Some truth to that, Middle school science teachers get all the fun stuff to do with real kids:

It appealed to my historical interests , so I used it as a "warm up" or "bell ringer" activity at the start of a class during the month with some historical theme to the scientific fact or an inventor who might have the nationality of the month's theme. This is how I first learned about Mr. Lewis Latimer.

I found Lewis Latimer, while I was teaching at Ole South High School, Home of the Colonels, in Garland, Texas, which is actually only one street away from Dallas, Texas. I pulled him up with a Google search on the key words "black inventors" and up popped this guy named Lewis Latimer, whom I had never heard of in my life. It seems that he invented the screw fitting on the bottom of Edison's incondescent light bulb. What I found more interesting is that he was a practical sort of inventor, and that fits well with my Scottish ancestory, whch prides itself on being both practical and inventive as well as thrifty

Lewis Latimer developed the screw in base and socket while working to install the first electrical lighting projects in major American cities. Imagine for a moment having to tie in or solder thousands of light bulbs to light streets, public buildings, and private homes.... then, imagine the nightmare of having to go back and re-wire or re-solder the ones that would eventually burn out, and at this time, they burned out too frequently. His mother of invention for both the filament improvement and the screw in base fittings was his actual field experience doing the wiring and repairs for lighting for public and private customers. Good concept and a good story to tell, so I used it.

"So, when you tell a "How many _____ does it take to screw in a light bulb" joke, you are actually joking about a Latimer screw-in light bulb... " was the conclusion to my warm up on that class day.


1. Thomas Edison’s Incandescent Light Bulb

“The Wizard of Menlo Park” has many inventions to his credit—an electric vote recorder, the phonograph, a telephone transmitter—but his most famous was the light bulb. He scribbled more than 40,000 pages full of notes and tested more than 1,600 materials, everything from hairs from man’s beard to coconut fiber, in his attempts to find the perfect filament. In 1879, he finally landed on carbonized bamboo and created the first modern-looking light bulb—filament, glass bulb, screw base and all. The light bulb was manufactured by Corning, a leader in glass and ceramics for the last 159 years.

(Negro Classic?)

1. Lewis Latimer's Light Bulb Screw Type Base Design

(and improved filament for refinement of Edison's Light Bulb)

Lewis Latimer is considered one of the 10 most important Black inventors of all time, not only for the sheer number of inventions created and patents secured but also for the magnitude of importance for his most famous discovery. Latimer was born on September 4, 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His parents were George and Rebecca Latimer, both runaway slaves who migrated to Massachusetts in 1842 from Virginia. George Latimer was captured by his slave owner, who was determined to take him back to Virginia. His situation gained great notoriety, even reaching the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Eventually George was purchased by abolition supporters who set him free.

In 1876, Latimer was sought out as a draftsman by a teacher for deaf children. The teacher had created a device and wanted Lewis to draft the drawing necessary for a patent application. The teacher was Alexander Graham Bell and the device was the telephone. Working late into the night, Latimer worked hard to finish the patent application, which was submitted on February 14, 1876, just hours before another application was submitted by Elisha Gray for a similar device.

In 1880, after moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut, Latimer was hired as the assistant manager and draftsman* for U.S. Electric Lighting Company owned by Hiram Maxim. Maxim was the chief rival to Thomas Edison, the man who invented the electric light bulb. The light was composed of a glass bulb which surrounded a carbon wire filament, generally made of bamboo, paper or thread. When the filament was burned inside of the bulb (which contained almost no air), it became so hot that it actually glowed.

Thus by passing electricity into the bulb, Edison had been able to cause the glowing bright light to emanate within a room. Before this time most lighting was delivered either through candles or through gas lamps or kerosene lanterns. Maxim greatly desired to improve on Edison's light bulb and focused on the main weakness of Edison's bulb - their short life span (generally only a few days.) Latimer set out to make a longer lasting bulb.

Latimer devised a way of encasing the filament within an cardboard envelope which prevented the carbon from breaking and thereby provided a much longer life to the bulb and hence made the bulbs less expensive and more efficient. This enabled electric lighting to be installed within homes and throughout streets.

Latimer's abilities in electric lighting became well known and soon he was sought after to continue to improve on incandescent lighting as well as arc lighting. Eventually, as more major cities began wiring their streets for electric lighting, Latimer was dispatched to lead the planning team. He helped to install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, New York City and Montreal and oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government building and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England and London.

In 1890, Latimer, having been hired by Thomas Edison, began working in the legal department of Edison Electric Light Company, serving as the chief draftsman and patent expert*. In this capacity he drafted drawings* and documents related to Edison patents, inspected plants in search of infringers of Edison's patents, conducted patent searches and testified in court proceeding on Edison's behalf. Later that year wrote the worlds most thorough book on electric lighting, "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System."

Lewis Latimer was named one of the charter members of the Edison Pioneers, a distinguished group of people deemed responsible for creating the electrical industry. The Edison Electric Lighting would eventually evolve into what is now known as the General Electric Company

But today if you google "Black Inventors" you find another, newer website called:

Black Invention Myths

(We want our ALL WHITE American Myths Back?)

Perhaps you've heard the claims:

Were it not for the genius and energy of African-American inventors, we might find ourselves in a world without traffic lights, peanut butter, blood banks, light bulb filaments, and a vast number of other things we now take for granted but could hardly imagine life without.

Such beliefs usually originate in books or articles about black history. Since many of the authors have little interest in the history of technology outside of advertising black contributions to it, their stories tend to be fraught with misunderstandings, wishful thinking, or fanciful embellishments with no historical basis. The lack of historical perspective leads to extravagant overestimations of originality and importance: sometimes a slightly modified version of a pre-existing piece of technology is mistaken for the first invention of its type; sometimes a patent or innovation with little or no lasting value is portrayed as a major advance, even if there's no real evidence it was ever used.

Unfortunately, some of the errors and exaggerations have acquired an illusion of credibility by repetition in mainstream outlets, especially during Black History Month (see examples for the traffic light and ironing board). When myths go unchallenged for too long, they begin to eclipse the truth. Thus I decided to put some records straight. Although this page does not cover every dubious invention claim floating around out there, it should at least serve as a warning never to take any such claim for granted.

Each item below is listed with its supposed black originator beneath it along with the year it was supposedly invented, followed by something about the real origin of the invention or at least an earlier instance of it

Not Now. Not Ever School of Thought

1. Lewis Latimer's Screw Socket for Edison's Light Bulb


The earliest evidence for a light bulb screw base design is a drawing in a Thomas Edison notebook dated Sept. 11, 1880.

It is not the work of Latimer, though:

Edison's long-time associates, Edward H. Johnson and John Ott, were principally responsible for designing fixtures in the fall of 1880. Their work resulted in the screw socket and base very much like those widely used today.

R. Friedel and P. Israel, Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1986).

The 1880 sketch of the screw socket is reproduced in the book cited above*.

* Something tells me that 1880 sketch might have the initials of Lewis Latimer on it in the legend or the margins, as more than just the drawsman that drew it.

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