To celebrate Black History Month, Acentech is highlighting the work of James West, the inventor of the foil electret microphone.
James Edward Maceo West was born in 1931 in Virginia. A Black American inventor and acoustician, he holds over 250 patents for microphones and electronics. As a child, he was fascinated by the mechanics of appliances and gadgets. “If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger,” West would later recollect. “I had this need to know what was inside.”
West knew he wanted to pursue his interest in science, and did so, in spite of his parents’ concern about future job prospects for an African American scientist, due to racism and Jim Crow laws of the South during his youth. Undaunted, West attended Temple University from 1953-57, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He was hired as a full-time acoustician by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, having spent summers working there as an intern.
While at Bell, West and colleague Gerhard M. Sessler began research on a highly sensitive, compact microphone in 1960. By 1962, they finished development and patented the microphone, which relied on electret transducers they had also invented. By 1968, the electret microphone was in mass production, becoming the industry standard. As of today, approximately 90 percent of all contemporary microphones — including those found in telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids — use their technology.
West was president of the Acoustical Society of America from 1998-1999, and has been a Fellow of the society since 1985. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering. He is a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and the Franklin Institute’s Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering, and holds five honorary doctorate degrees. He retired from Bell Labs in 2001, and soon after became a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering.
West works with many outreach groups to inspire women and students from underrepresented racial backgrounds to pursue careers in the fields of science and technology.
“Nature is the best engineer and scientist, and it has a lot of secrets that we don’t fully understand. Working to figure out those secrets motivates me. When I speak to students who are interested in STEM, I try to emphasize where I get my passion from, which is simply that the work is a lot of fun. There is nothing I can think of that is more rewarding or enjoyable than understanding how nature behaves.”
(Interesting side note – West’s mother, Matilda West, was one of the Hidden Figures mathematicians who worked at Langley Research Center in the 1950s-60s.)