The Lewisham connection to Thomas Edison’s right hand man

Thomas Edison invented a lot of things – mostly myths about himself.

He “only slept three hours a night” because he was constantly napping through the day.

The American didn’t invent the light bulb, either – Englishman Joseph Swan was the first person to use a carbon filament in a vacuum.

What is certain is that Edison’s right-hand man Lewis Latimer came to live in London while working for the inventor of the first machine gun, Streatham resident Hiram Maxim.

The debate is where he lived while he was here.

Lewisham is currently laying claim to the honour, thanks to the efforts of production engineer Paul Phoenix, of Evelyn Road, Lewisham.

He is asking anyone who can help establish where Mr Latimer might have lived while he worked in London from around 1881 to 1903, before returning to the USA.

Paul has persuaded Lewisham Theatre in Catford to recognise Mr Latimer’s South London connections, in a Black History Month display organised by Goldsmiths College.

Mr Latimer was the son of runaway slaves who fled from Virginia, in the south, to Boston, in the north of the USA in 1842. Abolitionists raised the $400 to pay off their owners.

He was born in 1848 and, when he grew up, became a draftsman. He made the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell for his famous US Patent 174,465, issued on March 7, 1876, for the telephone.

In 1880 Mr Latimer joined the United States Electric Lighting Company under Hiram Maxim who by 1881, was based in London – and helped his boss create a light bulb factory in Hatton Garden.

Paul, who has given talks on Mr Latimer at the Science Museum, and worked before his retirement for Standard Telephone Cables, said: “I have been trying for more than 20 years to have him recognised.

“It is good to see an exhibition at Lewisham Theatre in Catford has recognised his connections to this area. Better late than never.

“I have spoken to Mr Latimer’s granddaughter, Dr Latimer Norman, before she died. It is surprising how little has been written about his stay here – but then, perhaps not. But he is a pivotal figure.

“Even I only found out by picking up a leaflet about black inventors. Like everyone else, I assumed Edison invented the light bulb. Then I found out about his possible local connections.

“He should be an inspiration and role model – because he educated himself and became Edison’s right hand man from nothing. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him as a child and yet he did not let bitterness get in his way.”

US Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden mistakenly claimed on September 3 that a black man had invented the light bulb, not “a white guy named Edison”.

CNN later corrected Biden’s error: “No, a black man didn’t invent the light bulb,” said CNN. “But Lewis Howard Latimer made it better.”

Mr Latimer might not have done it all by himself. But he did prove that many hands make light work.

Pictured top: Lewis Latimer




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