James E. West
James West and Gerhard Sessler invented the electret microphone, which has advanced the sound industry and become the standard microphone used in products from music recording equipment to hearing aid devices.
West was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia. His mother Matilda gave birth at their family’s home, built by her father, because the nearby hospital in the town of Farmville would only admit white patients. West grew up wanting to understand how things work, often taking apart items like his grandfather’s pocket watch to explore the inner mechanics. He also developed a desire to change how some things work.
His curiosity was encouraged by his parents, who initially expected him to pursue a career as a doctor. His mother was one of the human computers who became known as the “Hidden Figures.” “She went from teaching at a school to working at Langley Research Center and was also an active officer in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” said West.
When Langley ultimately fired West’s mother in reaction to her work with the NAACP, this was one of many experiences that fueled his determination to advocate for greater diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. “The topics of systemic racism and the increase in and acceptance of diversity have always been at the forefront of my mind,” he said.
While attending Temple University, during his summer breaks, West interned at Bell Labs. Here, the workforce was more diverse than that of most other companies at the time. “I met [people] who looked like me, who I wanted to be like when I grew up,” West explained. Upon earning his degree in 1957, he joined the company and began working in electroacoustics, physical acoustics and architectural acoustics.
West and Sessler, a fellow scientist at Bell Labs, worked together to develop a compact and inexpensive yet highly sensitive microphone. In their electret microphone, thin sheets of polymer electret film are metal-coated on one side to form the membrane of the movable plate capacitor that converts sound to electrical signals with high fidelity.
The pair patented their invention in 1962. It soon became widely used because of its high performance, accuracy and reliability, as well as its low cost, small size and light weight. Today, 90% of the 2 billion microphones manufactured yearly are electret microphones, and they are used in items from recording equipment and professional sound measurement instruments to phones, hearing aids, baby monitors and toys.
During his time at Bell Labs, West was also instrumental in coordinating a summer research program designed to improve diversity for women and underrepresented minorities throughout the operating companies of AT&T.
West brought his dedication to advocating for STEM education and diversity in innovation to his involvement in National Inventors Hall of Fame® education programs and competitions. He has collaborated in the development of curricula for the K-6 Camp Invention® program, made personal visits to Camp Invention program sites and served as a Collegiate Inventors Competition® Judge, encouraging innovators of all ages and backgrounds to pursue their ambitions.
A fellow of IEEE, West served as president of the Acoustical Society of America in 1997 and 1998 and is the recipient of the 2006 National Medal of Technology. He holds more than 70 U.S. patents and is currently a professor of electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.