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What School Did Not Teach You About the Lightbulb and Why It Matters

Portrait of Lewis Latimer
Lewis Latimer - Electric Light's Hidden Figure

Do you recognise this man?

I am sure that you have heard of Alexander Graham Bell* who most people believe made the telephone.

I know you have heard of Thomas Edison** who brought the lightbulb to the masses.

But without this gentleman, neither invention would have existed.

Lewis Howard Latimer (1848 - 1928) was an American inventor and draftsman. He was the son of former slaves and was raised in Boston, Massachusetts.

Despite his humble beginnings, Mr Latimer joined the US Navy when he was merely 15 years old. After an honourable discharge, Lamiter managed to get himself a job as an office boy at a patents office Crosby Halstead and Gould.

Latimer taught himself how to use a set-square, ruler and other tools. His manager impressed with his skill, attention to detail and hard work, quickly promoted him to become head draftsman at the firm.

a very detailed drawing with a draftman's tools.
A draftman's drawing

A draftsman would be akin to a designer often sketching the technical drawings that would allow the idea to be manufactured.

A draftsman had exceptional technical knowledge and usually would have the final say if an idea would work and could get a patent to protect it.

Latimer's reputation grew and in 1876, he was employed by Alexander Graham Bell to be the chief draftsman to draw and test the idea of the telephone.

Meanwhile, in 1890, Thomas Edison was working on the lightbulb.

Portrait of Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison - 'The Father of Electric Light'

Edison indeed managed to create a lightbulb but the filaments that were used to light it were made out of bamboo, paper or thread and had a very short lifespan. Impressed by Latimer's knowledge of electrical engineering, Edison hired him to solve this problem.

Latimer invented the carbon filament that made the bulb last longer, and made it commercially viable. This was the breakthrough that Edison was looking for and the lightbulb took the world by storm.

In fact, Latimer in 1890 would write a book on the subject "Incandescent Electric Lighting" which was the first-ever book of it's kind and became the foundation of what the Lighting industry is today.

But I was never taught this in school. Do you know when I found out about this?

6 days ago.

When the former cricketer Michael Holding gave a passionate speech about George Floyd on Sky Sports and he spoke openly about the prevalent racism in UK society.

Michael Holding talking using a Sky Sports microphone
The Legendary Cricketer Michael Holding

Latimer's contributions helped to shape our modern world.

But the key question is:

Why was Mr Latimer's name never mentioned to us in school?

'The Obama Effect'

Portrait of President Barack Obama
Barack Obama - The 44th President of the United States

To find out, they took 472 students, 84 black students and 372 white students which were the proportion that matched the overall American population at the time. Between 2000 and 2010, black African-American students lagged behind their white counterparts by 10% on average throughout the country.

Before the test, the black students were questioned on how much media coverage they watched of Obama and if they felt that Obama's run was helping to dispel negative stereotypes about black people.

This group of students were tested at four key points of Obama's presidential run: two when Obama was less prominent and two when Obama was more prominent which included his victory speech in November of that year.

Their study was enlightening: At the two points when Obama wasn't as prominent, the attainment gap between the black and white learners remained. But at the points where Obama was winning and his achievements were splashed all over the media, that 10% gap was virtually eliminated.

In fact, they found that the black students that just watched his election victory speech did much better than the black learners who didn't watch it.

In other words, seeing a positive image of a black man being celebrated and successful had the power to make these kids feel that they could do it too.

The lead researcher of that study Professor Ray Friedman said:

"Our findings give us reason to believe that the influence of extraordinarily successful role models like Obama will help to drive improved performance and, over the longer term, to dispel negative stereotypes about black Americans, bringing us closer to a ‘post-racial’ world.***”

Representation Matters

The point is this: Black history is not only slavery, Civil Rights and Apartheid.

if all we show our young BAME students are images of oppression, humiliation and struggle, why do we wonder why they do not aspire to be more? Why do we relegate Black History to a month and forget about it for the remaining eleven?

Black history is human history.

As Mr Holding said, it is important that ALL history is taught because that creates a better understanding and upliftment for EVERYONE.

It's important that our society and our school curriculum reflects the greatness of the unsung heroes like Lewis Latimer and many others that don't have a platform. This will give the younger generations pride and purpose.

Our children can't be what they can't see.

And lastly, if do this right and find all of our history's 'hidden figures' and give them the spotlight that they rightly deserve, then we can finally say that 'All Lives Matter.'

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this blog, there are plenty here on All you have to do is subscribe below and get the best blogs straight to your mailbox. Pinky swear.

✱ After people contacted me online, I was made aware that the real inventor of the telephone was an Italian inventor called Antonio Meucci. In fact, it is believed Graham Bell had access to his materials and stole his work, patenting the invention before him. In 2002, the US Congress officially recognised Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone. I hope that all the history books get changed to reflect this injustice. Please read this article: I am also aware that Joseph Swan technically is the first inventor of the lightbulb, but the history is a little muddled. Although he beat Edison to the punch in getting the patent, his bulb didn't last long and wasn't practical. Edison is recognised as making the first practical and commercially viable incandescent lightbulb. Check out this article



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