Thursday, December 15, 2011
December 15, 2011: Cross-Culture 4: Seeing the Light
[To follow up and complement last week’s posts on how our understanding of historical periods and communities looks very different through a cross-cultural lens, this week I’ll focus on five seminal moments in American popular culture for which the same is true. This is the fourth in that series.]
[Also: In response to a couple of reader comments, I’m going to be trying out a new style for this week’s posts, one with mostly shorter paragraphs for potentially less difficult online reading. If it works—and feel free to weigh in!—I’ll try to utilize it for at least some of my posts going forward.]
Two of the most significant American inventions—perhaps ever, certainly of the late 19th century renaissance in technological innovation—exist in no small measure thanks to the cross-cultural contributions of one of America’s most inspiring men.
I understand why we like to think of our inventors as iconoclastic geniuses, understood by few if any of their peers, pursuing their passions in messy labs, and revealing their great accomplishments to an astonished world—it’s a compelling narrative, and one that certainly does connect to the genuinely innovative and impressive minds (and often inspiring stories) of American inventors like Alexander Graham Bell (himself a cross-cultural, multi-national immigrant Scottish-Canadian-American) and Thomas Edison (the son of a Canadian immigrant father). Yet one significant meaning of Edison’s famous quote about genius being “5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration” is that however individual the inspiration might be, the perspiration is almost always shared by a community working together to achieve particular ends; it was to that end, for example, that Edison designated as “the muckers” the core group of young men who constituted his company’s Engineering Division and helped advance (and often, it seems, originate) every one of his inventions and projects.
Every one of those muckers has a pretty interesting and compelling American story of his own, but I have to admit being most inspired by Lewis Latimer (1848-1928). Latimer was born in Massachusetts to a pair of runaway slaves, with his father barely escaping a return to slavery and having to hide for many years as a result; he forged a birth certificate at the age of 15 in order to enlist in the Union Navy during the Civil War; and after the war he went to work for patent lawyers in Boston. He quickly worked his way up to the role of head draftsman, and in that capacity worked closely with Bell to draft his successful 1876 patent application for the telephone. When he went to work with Edison eight years later, it was officially to serve as the company’s first draftsman; but in the interim Latimer had worked for Hiram Maxim and had in 1881 invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for the hugely innovative Maxim electric lamp, and so Edison was really hiring Latimer not only for his patent and drafting skills but also for his creative inspirations. Without those inspirations, it’s certainly safe to say that Edison’s innovations in electricity might have been much less successful; that position is greatly amplified by a reading of Latimer’s 1890 treatise Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.
Perhaps Bell and Edison would have come up with and patented their inventions, perhaps the histories of the phone and electricity would be largely the same, without Latimer. But as it turns out, the history and story of these crucial material and popular culture innovations did include this inspiring American, are much more cross-cultural than we might realize—and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the importance of engaging with that history. Last moment tomorrow,
PS. Any inventions or innovations whose stories we should better know or remember?