We’re celebrating his 91st birthday!
James West was born February 10, 1931 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, Biography.comreports. Even as a child, West says he can remember having an interest in engineering, specifically if there was some electrical component involved.
“If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger. I had this need to know what was inside,” West recalled.
Years later, his love of science would be cemented. While his parents preferred he pursue a career as a physician due to the racism of the time, West was set on becoming a scientist. In 1953, he began college at Temple University where he studied physics, working during the summer as an intern at the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1957, Bell Laboratories brought West on full-time as an acoustical scientist.
His time at the company would prove invaluable, West meeting up with fellow scientist Gerhard M. Sessler in 1960. The duo would then team up to create an “inexpensive, highly sensitive, compact microphone.” By 1962, the microphone was finished, functioning mainly on the duo's invention of electret transducers. The invention revolutionized the audio industry and by 1968, the electret microphone was being mass-produced, West’s invention was hailed as the industry standard.
In 2001, West retired from Bell Laboratories after more than four decades with the company. He parlayed his career as an inventor into a successful career as an educator, working with Johns Hopkins as a research professor in the engineering department. West also spent a lot of time partnering with initiatives that focused on exposing women and students of color to careers in the science and technology sectors. He found increased joy as a professor, realizing that his jobs as an educator and inventor shared some similarities.
“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. I like the fact that I won’t be locked into one small niche here,” West previously said via statement.
Today, West’s electret transducer invention is present in 90 percent of all modern microphones, including in telephones, baby monitors, hearing aids, tape recorders, and camcorders. He holds more than 250 patents on microphones and other discoveries featuring polymer-foil electrets and has lent his expertise to a number of scientific papers and books. West also received a number of honors and awards, including being appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America in 1997, a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1998, and receiving an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 alongside his colleague and co-inventor, Gerhard Sessler.
Happy Birthday Mr. West! Thank you for your contributions. Because of you, we can!
Meet James West, the Black man who invented the microphone. Photo Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering