Lighting the Way: Lewis Howard Latimer

In honor of Black History Month and Thursday’s National Inventors’ Day, we wanted to profile the incredible story of Lewis Howard Latimer. A groundbreaking inventor and draftsman, Latimer made amazing strides on inventions that remain crucial to our everyday – like the light bulb. 

Lighting the Way: Lewis Howard Latimer

Image by Unknown -, Public Domain,

Lewis Howard Latimer was an African-American inventor and draftsman. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Latimer gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm. He learned to use a set square, ruler and other tools, quickly becoming a skilled draftsman. His boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings and eventually Latimer was promoted to head draftsman.

In 1876 while a draftsman at Alexander Graham Bell’s patent law firm, Latimer was asked to draft the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone. Latimer later left Bell’s law firm when he relocated with his family to Connecticut; there he was hired as an assistant manager and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, owned by Hiram Maxim, a rival of Thomas Edison.

In the early 1880s, Latimer received patents for several inventions surrounding the light bulb and electric lamps. His most famous patent was the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons,” which was an improved production method for carbon filaments used in light bulbs. This new process for creating a carbon filament was an improvement on Thomas Edison’s original paper filament that would burn out quickly. In 1884, the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City hired Latimer as a draftsman and expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. Latimer also coauthored a book titled Incandescent Electric Lighting - A Practical Description of the Edison System.

Lewis Latimer became an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques.

For more incredible stories of African American inventors, check out our recent post, the Hallowed Ground of African American Invention.

Related Posts

Global Good and MobileODT Team Up to Prevent Cervical Cancer

In recognition of World Cancer Day, Intellectual Ventures' Global Good and biomedical technology startup MobileODT discuss a new partnership where they will develop a new version of the startup’s cervical cancer screening device.

By Celina Schocken, Maternal and Child Health Advisor, Global Good

Cervical cancer is one of the most deadly – and the most preventable – diseases in the world today. In 2016 alone, nearly 300,000 women are expected to die of cervical cancer, and the number of cases are increasing. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, about 443,000 women will die each year from cervical cancer worldwide.[1]

Global Good recently teamed up with MobileODT, a company based in Tel-Aviv, Israel, to develop a new version of their cervical cancer screening device. Global Good is a collaboration between Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures aimed at developing technology solutions to some of the world’s most difficult health and development problems.

There are very few cases of cervical cancer in developed countries like the United States. This is because the disease grows very slowly, and with routine screening from Pap smears and HPV tests, doctors identify women and treat them before they become sick. Also, recently available HPV vaccines are preventing vaccinated women from developing cancer.

Unfortunately, in developing countries around the world, cervical cancer is often the leading cause of cancer deaths for women.

The MobileODT device combines a cell phone, with a special light and other features, to make it easier for health workers to examine a woman’s cervix for signs of cancer. When signs of early cancer are detected, there are low-cost ways to treat women in developing countries.

The MobileODT device is already being used around the world - in Kenya, El Salvador, Rwanda and Haiti. Global Good and MobileODT will work together to make the device even easier for health workers to use. Global Good will create an algorithm that identifies potential cancers, and shows the health worker exactly where to look to confirm a diagnosis.

Health workers and patients love the MobileODT device. Nurses had been using a lamp or a flashlight for visualization of the cervix until they knew about the enhanced visual assessment technology by MobileODT.

“It (the device) was making my work easy, to see many clients and to come up with a diagnosis as fast as possible,” said Beatrice, a county government nurse clinician in Kenya. “It enhances visualization of the cervix whereby you don’t need any additional light. And they (the patients) also appreciate the need to be tested early. So that will make our intervention put in place early so that our prognosis for cervical cancer will be good.”

Triza, a patient screened in Kenya, said “I was a bit nervous, but I’m just happy to know… my cervix is OK.”

Use of the MobileODT device also improves confidence in the health care system, because women can see a photo of their cervix and trust that they were properly screened.

“Global Good and MobileODT look forward to seeing an impact on access to cervical screening through their partnership, providing a critical tool to allow health workers to bring better care in this greatly neglected area,” said David Bell, head of Global Health Technologies at Global Good.

1.        [1]WHO, Health Statistics and Information Systems. Projections of mortality and causes of death 2015–2030. Available at: 



Related Posts

The Hallowed Ground of African American Invention

For Black History Month, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History is building on the National Park Service’s “Journey through Hallowed Ground” to honor the contributions African Americans have made to our country. The Black History Month 2016 theme, Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories includes a complete list of historic landmarks that have been certified by the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. Today, we're building on this theme further and highlighting the African American inventors who brought innovation and breakthroughs to these same historic locations –  impacting and changing our world for the better. 

The Hallowed Ground of African American Invention

Charles Richard Drew, “Father of the Blood Bank”

Chicago, Illinois – Where Sarah Goode was one of the first African American women to receive a U.S. patent. Sarah invented a folding cabinet bed, earning U.S. patent number 322,177, which would later be called the “hide-away bed.”

See also the Oscar Stanton De Priest House, the apartment building where the first African American Congressman, elected in 1928, lived.

New York City, New York – Where Dr. Charles Richard Drew made a critical breakthrough in separating red blood cells from plasma and storing them separately. His discovery led to the first blood banks, allowing blood to be stored for over a week. Dr. Drew’s discovery has saved countless lives.

See also St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church. Built in 1809, the church was an important gathering place for leaders seeking to end slavery in the South and guarantee civil rights for all.

New Orleans, Louisiana – Where former slave Norbit Rillieux developed an evaporator for refining sugar. His 1846 patent was so revolutionary, it still underpins the processes used by the sugar industry and in the manufacture of soap today.

See also the house of James H. Dillard, whose groundbreaking work made educational opportunities and public libraries available to underserved rural African American communities.

Paris, Kentucky – Where Garrett Morgan invented a “safety hood” or gas mask that was a prototype that would eventually be used to protect soldiers from chlorine fumes during World War I. Morgan also received a patent for a precursor to modern traffic lights: a traffic signal that featured automated STOP and GO signs.

See also the nearby Camp Nelson in Nicholasville, Kentucky. A Union base in the Civil War, Camp Nelson was a large recruitment and training center for African Americans, many of whom enlisted to gain their freedom. The site also served as a refugee camp for family members of the soldiers.

For more stories of groundbreaking African American inventors, check out our previous post highlighting the amazing contributions of men and women who have dedicated their lives to improving society.

Related Posts

Behind the Breakthrough Answers: The Influence of Mentors

At Intellectual Ventures, we’ve talked extensively about the importance of mentors. From Nathan Myhrvold’s relationship with Steven Hawking to Adriane Brown’s encouragement of mentorship for students everywhere, engaging with role models can unlock incredible opportunities for personal and career growth.

Behind the Breakthrough Answers: The Influence of Mentors

Adriane Brown speaks with students in Washington, D.C., about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

It comes as no surprise that our Behind the Breakthrough participants also repeatedly emphasize how mentors shaped them into the people they are today. Here are some of their thoughts:

“My father is an engineer and my uncle was a biochemistry professor. Without their guidance, I don’t know that I would have pursued a career in science and engineering. Everything came together during my second year of college when my professor asked me to work on a telecommunications project. I doubt I would be in this field without that initial introduction and mentoring. It goes to show that people who take you under their wing can make all the difference.”

David Paranchych, Engineering Director and expert in the field of cellular wireless communication

“In addition to my research, I’ve also become a manager/supervisor/mentor on the HIV and TB teams, helping to guide different research questions. I look back on the great mentors I have had throughout my scientific career for ideas about how to support and motivate team members.”

Anna Bershteyn, Senior Research Manager at the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM)

“Mr. Macky was my high school math teacher. I’m positive he didn’t like me since I was kind of a troublemaker back then. Anyway, one day he says to my mother, ‘Tola could be a lot of things, but he has a strong mathematical nature. If he doesn’t choose a career that will allow him to scratch that itch he will be unhappy.’ Up until that point, I was sure I was going to be theatre major in college, but Mr. Macky’s opinion started to make me think about going into engineering. He helped provide clarity to my career path and it was the best investment I ever made.”

Tola Marts, Engineering Manager in the Devices Platform Group (DPG)


Want to hear more from these impressive inventors? Check out our original profiles of Dave, Anna, and Tola. And don’t forget to follow the rest of our Behind the Breakthrough series by subscribing to our IV Insights blog and following our Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

Related Posts

Failing for Success: Thomas Edison

“I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!” – Thomas Edison

Failing for Success: Thomas Edison

As one of the most recognizable names in inventive history, Edison’s numerous innovative ideas and creations are legendary. He held more than 1,000 patents, a record only broken very recently, and developed ground-breaking technologies like the electric light bulb, phonograph, batteries, and so much more.

But despite his outstanding success, Edison failed frequently. In fact, it sometimes took thousands of attempts – literally – to perfect his experimentation. That was exactly the case when Edison was working to devise a novel storage battery. According to his close friend Walter S. Mallory, Edison had already tried 9,000 experiments and hadn’t yet found a solution. When Mallory commented about the lack of results, Edison promptly responded, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!”

Here are just a couple of Edison’s other failures, which ultimately became footnotes of his wildly successful career:

Iron Extracting

During the late 1880’s Edison was very concerned about the cost of iron, which was impacting the price of some of his inventions, like the electric generator. After some thought and research, he believed he found a solution: build a separation plant to pulverize low-grade iron ore and produce an abundant supply of iron.

Once the massive plant and supporting town was built, things didn’t quite go as planned. The machines disastrously failed, causing Edison to lose a substantial amount of money. A few years and a new successful design later, the entire endeavor still failed when iron extractors began to mine the Mesabi iron range in Minnesota, cutting iron costs so dramatically that Edison closed his plant entirely.

Nonetheless, there was a major silver lining in the failure. Edison took what he learned and later applied some of the methods to concrete production, which ultimately became one of his major entrepreneurial successes.

The Automatic Vote Tally System

Today’s cable news programs may often discuss the inefficiencies of the United States Congress, but Edison was dreaming up a solution almost 150 years ago. Just like today, the Senate voted on issues one by one – an inherently inefficient process that Edison wanted to change. As it turns out, the device Edison created, the electrographic vote-recorder, was one of his first patented inventions.

Though the recorder could have saved hours of procedural time during Senate sessions, Edison’s creation was soundly rejected when he proposed it in Washington D.C. because political leaders worried that it would subvert the entire legislative process.

Even with disappointment, Edison took the failure in stride. From then on, he declared that he would focus his ideas and inventions on filling gaps or opening new opportunities in the marketplace. Historian Leonard Degraaf puts it this way: “He wasn’t just going to invent things for the sake of inventing them.”

Have any suggestions for our next “Failing for Success” story? Give us a shout on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn. And don’t forget to subscribe to our IV Insights blog and check out our Behind the Breakthrough profiles to hear first-hand from top inventors, innovators, and more. 

Related Posts

News You Can Use: Energized

On this installment of News You Can Use, we’re highlighting some of the most amazing new energy-related news from the past month. From the farthest reaches of the universe to the everyday household lamp, these breakthroughs illustrate how science continues to not only dazzle us but how it is working to improve our everyday lives.

IV Spinout TerraPower New Public Private Partnership with DOE

Among Intellectual Ventures efforts over the years has been the development of alternative energy technologies. Our work on this front eventually lead to the creation of TerraPower, an independent corporation dedicated to breakthrough ideas that solve our pressing energy crisis. The Department of Energy agrees and has named TerraPower as one of two projects to receive funding for advanced nuclear reactor concepts. This new public-private partnership will dramatically increase opportunities to advance R&D initiatives that are vital to the U.S. and the world.

Using Nanomaterials to Mimic Photosynthesis

For decades, scientists have tried without much progress to use the process by which plants use photosynthesis to produce energy. But now, MIT Technology Review reports that a nanomaterials chemist at the University of California, Berkeley has built a system that – like plants – could produce better versions of fuel without increasing the world’s carbon dioxide levels. Though the system would need to be scaled, Peidong Yang’s “array of nanowires coupled with engineered bacteria” shows real promise for the future of energy production.

Making Incandescent Bulbs as Efficient as LEDs

The invention and proliferation of LED lightbulbs has significantly decreased household energy use. With energy savings of up to 80 percent over traditional incandescent lightbulbs, many have made the switch to LEDs. But some have held out due to the familiarity with the light quality of their traditional lightbulb, even though it wastes much more energy as heat.

Luckily, Fast Company’s Co.DESIGN reports that inventors at MIT have found a way to “bounce” the extra heat from the incandescent lightbulb back into the filaments. So far the invention has tripled the efficiency of incandescent bulbs, and researchers hope to get even more energy savings out of the technology. 

Lighting up Galaxies Far, Far Away

On the most extreme of extreme energy scales in the known universe, astronomers noted the brightest supernova in history this past week. According to Smithsonian Magazine, a network of telescopes in Chili and Hawaii that scans the sky recorded the event. Events like these remind us that our ever-advancing telescope technology is allowing us to continue growing our understanding and perhaps one day help us better harness the power and energy of the universe.

@IVinvents shares the latest news about invention and innovation. Follow along, and let us know what you’ve been reading, too.


Related Posts

Behind the Breakthrough Answers: What Inspires Your Work?

Pursuing cutting-edge research and development is hard work. Often, even small components of a larger breakthrough require years of trial and error and creative thinking. So we asked the men and women of our Behind the Breakthrough Series – what inspires you? What keeps you focused on the goals of your work? Below, hear from two interviewees from Global Good, a collaborative effort between Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures to invent, develop, and deploy commercially-viable technologies that improve life in developing countries, on how they approach some of the world’s most significant challenges.

Behind the Breakthrough Answers: What Inspires Your Work?

From L to R: Manan Shukla, Anna Bershteyn

Global Good’s work inspires me. We are a mission-driven organization that aims to make lives easier all over the world. It really grounds me when I meet with end-users and hear their feedback about our work. They are excited about what we are doing because it positively impacts them. For example, we’ve heard from numerous people who are so grateful for having vaccines because of our passive vaccine storage device, Arktek. And dairy farmers consistently tell me that our work will improve their farming and livelihood. Meeting our end-users makes me realize that what we do matters. It’s inspiring. It’s why I always tell people that I have my dream job.

– Manan Shukla, Associate Commercialization Lead, Global Good

Three things. First, it’s the excitement of knowing that we’re really breaking new ground. Second, it’s our technical capacity. We are at this unique interface with software development, policy, and basic research. I think we have the opportunity to move things forward in a new direction. Third, and most of all, it’s my colleagues at IDM. We have an incredible team with an amazing culture. I’ve learned so much from my co-workers. There is a sense of feeling honored to get to do this sort of work, and it makes this place collaborative rather than competitive, even while pushing hard and feeling great pride in our work.

– Anna Bershteyn, Senior Research Manager, Institute for Disease Modeling

Want to hear more from these impressive inventors? Check out our original profiles of Manan and Anna. And don’t forget to follow the rest of our Behind the Breakthrough series by subscribing to our IV Insights blog and following our Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

Related Posts

Failing for Success: Benjamin Franklin

Founding Father, inventor, politician, diplomat, scientist, and author: Benjamin Franklin is one of American history’s most significant figures. Even a cursory look at his career reveals groundbreaking accomplishments. However, Franklin’s success didn’t come without challenge, mistakes, and in a few cases failures.

“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” – Benjamin Franklin

Founding Father, inventor, politician, diplomat, scientist, and author: Benjamin Franklin is one of American history’s most significant figures. Even a cursory look at his career reveals groundbreaking accomplishments. For one, Franklin heavily influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. He also proved that lightning was electrical, which helped him to invent the world’s first lightning rod. He even invented bifocals, his own versions of a stove and odometer, and a urinary catheter.

However, as his quote above reveals, Franklin’s success didn’t come without challenge, mistakes, and in a few cases failure. In fact, some of his first attempts at inventions needed revision, his political proposals weren’t always enacted, he dropped out of school at a very young age, and he was seriously electrocuted during one of his famous experiments. But with hard work, tenacity, and a spirit of curiosity, Franklin bounced back after every obstacle and became one of history’s great renaissance men.

Here are just a couple of examples of the challenges and failures he faced along the way:

Some of his early publications failed

One of Benjamin Franklin’s early milestones was publishing the first German-language newspaper in the United States, Die Philadelphische Zeitung, in 1732. While novel, the publication failed to gain a following and went out of press less than one year later. Another of Franklin’s early publications, The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, also failed after just six issues.

But these failures meant almost nothing in the long run. Ultimately, Franklin became a hugely successful writer, editor, and printer with the Pennsylvania ChronicleThe Pennsylvania Gazette, and his immensely popular editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack

His Photonic Alphabet never caught on

Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin believed that the Standard English alphabet needed a bit of reform. His proposed new alphabet, known as the Photonic Alphabet, eliminated letters like C, Q, and W that he believed were unnecessary. He also thought up six new letters to replace sounds that require multiple letters – for example, the sounds “th” and “sh.” According to Franklin, this new alphabet would have created a more natural sounding mode of spelling that prioritizes sounds created in one’s windpipe or breath.

Though Franklin’s Photonic Alphabet was at least partially supported by America’s most famous lexicographer, Noah Webster, the idea never even came close to taking off. It was considered too radical and Franklin ultimately scrapped the proposal entirely. Nonetheless, Franklin’s idea was certainly intriguing and you can learn more by checking out the Smithsonian’s excellent overview of the proposal and its history.

Have any suggestions for our next “Failing for Success” story? Give us a shout on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn. And don’t forget to subscribe to our IV Insights blog and check out our Behind the Breakthrough profiles to hear first-hand from top inventors, innovators, and more. 

Related Posts

From the Archives: Nathan Myhrvold on Mentorship

In my early twenties, when I was a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University, I told my employer Stephen Hawking that I was going on a three month leave of absence. We were unlocking the mysteries of the universe together, and I wanted to part ways to go build a tech startup.

From the Archives: Nathan Myhrvold on Mentorship

Photo: Nathan Myhrvold (left) with his mentor Stephen Hawking.

My interests have always been all over the map. I’m an inventor, a CEO, a chef, a photographer. I recently finished a study about dinosaur growth rates. And I’ve been lucky enough to become pretty good at some of these things, in large part because of the people who’ve mentored me along the way.

Stephen was one of my first great mentors. I wanted to be a physicist at the time, so after graduate school I applied to a whole bunch of places. I think I wrote sixty-three letters. I remember being in Japan when I got the call. It was four in the morning when the phone rang. My wife (girlfriend at the time) answered the phone and said, “It’s for you. It’s from England.” The phone connection was bad and this woman with a British accent was saying “I’m here with Stephen Hawking.” Right. I thought it was a joke. But then I heard this murmur on the other end of the line. It was Stephen, and he wanted to offer me a job. So I said yes.

I loved working with Stephen. He’s brilliant. He was very well-known within the realm of British academics, but despite that he was and still is a very down-to-earth guy. He was always doing things for the benefit of his students. I remember there was a prestigious conference Stephen was invited to, but he sent a grad student in his place. He knew the topic was more important for his student’s thesis than it was for him to make an appearance.

I’m fortunate to have had amazing mentors, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from them all, it’s that wisdom comes more easily when you’re surrounded by people with different interests. Bill Gates mentored me in business when I became Microsoft’s CTO. I was an apprentice to award-winning chef Thierry Ratureau, who helped me hone my skills in the art and science of cooking. Like-minded advisers are important, but what is often overlooked, in my opinion, is the value of having mentors who can teach you about something unfamiliar. Who encourage you to view the world through different lenses.

It’s been decades since I told Stephen I was taking that three month leave of absence from Cambridge. I still haven’t returned. While Stephen became the world’s foremost physicist, I became the world’s backmost physicist. I don’t think he holds that against me, though. That’s what made him such a valuable mentor. He encourages people to “look up to the stars, not down at your feet.” And so I guess I’m still exploring.

Related Posts

Behind the Breakthrough Answers: “What are the biggest challenges of invention?” (Part Two)

Last month, we profiled some of the answers our Behind the Breakthrough participants gave about the biggest challenges of invention. The takeaway? Creating useful, usable inventions isn’t exactly straightforward, but hard work and focus goes a very long way. This month, we’re picking up where we left off. On this Behind the Breakthrough, the second of a two-part series, three more of our Behind the Breakthrough participants discuss the various challenges of invention, and their ideas for effectively overcoming them.

Behind the Breakthrough Answers: “What are the biggest challenges of invention?” (Part Two)

From L to R: Dr. Gregory Phelan, Jake Russell, Pablos Holman

“As a trained scientist, you learn a lot about how to do lab work, how to problem solve, and how to creatively think. But inventors must also have the ability to connect the dots—I can make this material, but how can I get this out to society? Who can help me commercialize this? One of the greatest challenges of being an inventor is finding a way to do it all—to build an idea, but then to find the business partners who can implement that idea in a way that benefits society.”

— Dr. Gregory Phelan, Associate Professor, State University of New York College at Cortland

“The hardest part about inventing is the time commitment. Good ideas can take a significant amount of time to create and refine into a useful and specific example. There’s this idea that being an inventor means always thinking of radical new concepts that change the world. The reality is that even an incremental development that takes one tiny, but useful and practical step toward solving a problem can be very valuable.  When combined, multiple incremental improvements can collectively enable new and compelling innovations – such as the modern-day smartphone.”

— Jake Russell, IV Invention Development Manager

“The most challenging aspect of invention is simply the lack of time. I always dream of applying all of my time to the right ideas or inventions. But mystically I have no way of knowing whether an idea or invention is the right thing. Since I am always working on the five-to-ten-year horizon, some of my futuristic ideas can be off the mark – I can be wrong about what will happen in the next decade. All of this means that I can waste far too much time inventing one thing. And that can be nerve-wracking!”

— Pablos Holman, IV Resident Futurist

Want to hear more from these impressive inventors? Check out our original profiles of Greg, Pablos, and Jake. And don’t forget to follow the rest of our Behind the Breakthrough series by subscribing to our IV Insights blog and following our Facebook and LinkedIn pages. 

Related Posts

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan is IV's Founder and Chief Executive Officer.





Twitter | Follow Us »

A remarkable life of inventing: "Artur Fischer, Inventor With More Patents Than Edison, Dies at 96" via @nytimes

Feb 09

Why failure drives innovation

Feb 08

Honoring Lewis Latimer in light of #BlackHistoryMonth & #NationalInventorsDay:

Feb 09