National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductee James West has transformed the world of sound. West and fellow Inductee Gerhard Sessler invented the electret microphone, introducing technology that is now found in 90% of the 2 billion microphones manufactured each year.
When you pick up a phone, listen to music or choose a hearing aid, chances are you’re engaging with technology made possible by West – but how much do you know about this legendary inventor, professor and advocate for diversity? Read on to learn more of his story.
Questioning How Things Work
West was born Feb. 10, 1931, in the home built by his maternal grandfather in Prince Edward County, Virginia. His parents initially encouraged West to pursue a career as a doctor. His mother Matilda, who could not give birth in the local hospital in Farmville because only white patients were accepted there, was one of the human computers who became known as the “Hidden Figures.” She recognized and embraced her son’s own inclination to follow his curiosity and explore STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts.
Growing up, West was always driven to understand how things work, often taking apart items like his grandfather’s pocket watch to investigate the inner mechanics. He also wanted to understand — and to change — how social systems worked.
Many experiences fueled West’s resolve to advocate for diversity in STEM fields, including learning that his mother had been fired by Langley Research Center in reaction to her involvement in the NAACP. “The topics of systemic racism and the increase in and acceptance of diversity have always been at the forefront of my mind,” he said.
Advancing the Sound Industry
While West attended Temple University, he spent his summers interning at Bell Labs, where he found a more diverse workforce than was typical of companies at the time. After earning his degree in 1957, he took a position there to work in electroacoustics, physical acoustics and architectural acoustics.
With the goal of developing a compact, low-cost, highly sensitive microphone, West began working with Sessler, another scientist at Bell Labs. Together they created the electret microphone using thin sheets of polymer electret film that are coated with metal on one side to form the membrane of a movable plate capacitor that could convert sound to electrical signals with high fidelity.
Patented in 1962, their invention quickly caught on. Offering high performance, accuracy and reliability, electret microphones are used in items including recording equipment, professional sound measurement instruments, phones, hearing aids, baby monitors and even toys.
While making technological advancements, West also helped coordinate a summer research program designed to improve diversity for women and underrepresented minorities throughout the operating companies of AT&T.
Empowering the Next Generation
Since his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999, West has been deeply involved in our education programs and events. Not only has he been featured in curricula for our K-6 Camp Invention® program, but he also has worked closely with our education team to help develop program experiences that instill the meaningful lessons of diverse inventors who serve as relatable role models for children across the country.
Additionally, West has made inspiring visits to Camp Invention program sites and has served as a Collegiate Inventors Competition® Judge, personally encouraging innovators of all ages and backgrounds to pursue their ambitions.
West holds more than 70 U.S. patents and is currently a professor of electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Get to Know More Visionary Inventors
Since 1973, the National Inventors Hall of Fame has honored more than 600 of the world’s greatest creators, innovators and entrepreneurs. To learn more of their stories, we invite you to visit our website.