The ingenuity of African American inventors Lewis Latimer and Philip Downing allowed consumers to see the light, literally. These pioneers were instrumental in bringing the age of electricity safely into consumers’ homes.
Lewis Howard Latimer received a patent in January 1881 for an improved process for creating a carbon filament for light bulbs. His filament was more durable and longer lasting than earlier filaments, such as Thomas Edison’s original paper filament. His innovation provided incandescent light bulbs that were affordable to more consumers and safer than gas lamps, which were generally used at the time.
Latimer also helped draft the necessary drawings required for Alexander Graham Bell to receive a patent for his version of the telephone, co-patented an improved toilet system for railroad cars and was a patent consultant to various law firms. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
Philip Downing designed an electrical switch that allowed railroad workers to turn the power supply on or off for railroad trains as needed. He received a patent for it in 1890. Electrical switches, like the ones used to turn lights on and off in most homes, are based on his design. He also designed the first street letter box that protected mail from being stolen, the prototype for the mailboxes used by the postal service today.
In the years since Latimer’s and Downing’s innovations, the safety of electrical products has improved vastly. For more than 40 years, CPSC staff have been working hard to continue to reduce the risk of harm from electrical products and to give you the information you need to use them safely.