'Not a white guy named Edison': Biden claims a black man invented the light bulb

Oliver O'Connell
Older style light bulbs have not changed in their basic design since the days of Thomas Edison: Rex
Older style light bulbs have not changed in their basic design since the days of Thomas Edison: Rex

During his visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Thursday, Democratic candidate Joe Biden claimed that a “black guy invented the lightbulb, not a white guy named Edison”.

Mr Biden made the claim in a section of a speech delivered at the Grace Lutheran Church following his meeting with the family of Jacob Blake, the black man shot seven times by a police officer in August.

Promising to improve the country’s record on racial justice if he wins the election, Mr Biden decried the lack of representation in the teaching of history.

“Why in God's name don't we teach history in history classes? A black man invented the light bulb. Not a white guy named Edison … There's so much. Did anybody know?”

He also referred to the 1921 Tulsa massacre and destruction of Black Wall Street in Oklahoma, as not being taught in schools.

The former vice president appeared to be referring to the black American inventor Lewis Howard Latimer who worked on the development of both the light bulb and the telephone.

A Lemelson-MIT biography states that after becoming part of Thomas Edison’s elite research team, he made his most important contributions to science by improving the light bulb patented by his employer in 1880.

The original prototype for the light bulb was lit by a glowing, electrified filament made of paper, which would quickly burn out.

Mr Latimer created a version with a filament made of the much more durable carbon. He sold the patent for the Incandescent Electric Light Bulb with Carbon Filament to the United States Electric Company in 1881.

He then went on to patent a process for efficiently manufacturing the carbon filament and developed the threaded socket for the improved bulb.

In 1890 Mr Latimer wrote the first book on electric lighting, Incandescent Electric Lighting and supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.

Latimer's other inventions include the first toilet for railroad carriages and an early forerunner of the air conditioner.

Employed as a draftsman and assistant by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, there have also been claims that it was Mr Latimer that actually invented the telephone, though these are often disregarded as he defended Mr Bell’s claims to first inventions in court.

While it was Mr Edison that invented the first commercially viable light bulb, it was Mr Latimer who made its widespread use possible with his patented improvements.

Mr Biden may have overstated Mr Latimer’s role, but he remains a crucial figure in science and the development of modern life.

For his part, president Donald Trump is a big fan of old-style Edison light bulbs, frequently complaining that newer energy efficient models make him look orange. In 2019 his administration rolled back an Obama-era requirement for more energy efficient light bulbs.

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