James West is a U.S. inventor and professor who, in 1962, developed the electret transducer technology later used in 90 percent of contemporary microphones.
West was born on February 10, 1931, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. As a child, he was intrigued by how things worked and enjoyed taking apart appliances. “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.”
After an accident with a radio he had tinkered with, West became enthralled with the concept of electricity. He knew he wanted to pursue his interest in science academically, though his parents were concerned about future job prospects for an African American scientist, due to the racism and Jim Crow laws of the South. They preferred for him to become a physician.
Undeterred, West headed to Temple University in 1953 to study physics and worked during the summers as an intern for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He received a bachelor's degree in physics in 1957, and was hired for a full-time position as an acoustical scientist by Bell.
Develops Electret Microphone
In 1960, while at Bell, West teamed up with fellow scientist Gerhard M. Sessler to develop an inexpensive, highly sensitive, compact microphone. In 1962, they finished development on the product, which relied on their invention of electret transducers. By 1968, the electret microphone was in mass production. West's and Sessler's invention became the industry standard, and today, 90 percent of all contemporary microphones ‐ including the ones found in telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids ‐ use their technology.
Years later, West was appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America in 1997 and joined the National Academy of Engineering in 1998. And both West and Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. West has also worked with initiatives to entreat women and students of color to explore and pursue careers in the fields of science and technology.
Joins Johns Hopkins University
West retired from Bell in 2001, after more than four decades with the company. After interviewing with several universities, he chose Johns Hopkins and became a research professor at its Whiting School of Engineering in the electrical/computer engineering department.
“I discovered that Johns Hopkins was a lot like Bell Labs, where the doors were always open and we were free to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines,” he said in a statement. “I like the fact that I won't be locked into one small niche here.”
During his career, West has received an array of accolades and honors as well as developing more than 250 patents on microphones and related discoveries involving polymer-foil electrets. Known for being humanistic in his approach to working with others, he has also been a prolific writer, having authored and/or contributed to a number of scientific papers and books.
February 10, 1931
- He holds over 250 foreign and U.S. patents for the production and design of microphones and techniques for creating polymer foil electrets.
- He is famous for being the co-inventor of the foil electret microphone.
- Dr. West is the recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and in 2010, along with Gerhard M. Sessler, West was the recipient of The Franklin Institute's >Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering.
- He is also an inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering.
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