James Edward West was born on February 10, 1931 in Prince Edward County, Virginia. He was an inquisitive young boy, fascinated with electronics and always ready to take things apart to discover how they worked. His curiosity almost got the better of him when he was eight years old and decided repair a broken radio. Confident that he had fixed the radio, he plugged it into a ceiling outlet, standing on the brass footboard of his bed. Unfortunately, a bolt of 120 volts of electricity shot through his body, temporarily paralyzing him where he stood. Fortunately his brother was standing nearby and knocked him onto the floor, terminating the shock he was receiving. Undeterred, rather than being afraid he became even further intrigued by electronics and electricity.
Although his father had encouraged him to pursue an education, he pushed him to go to medical school, noting that very few Blacks were ever hired by universities for science oriented careers. His father was afraid that James was “taking the long road toward working at the post office.” After graduating from high school, however, West enrolled at Temple University in 1953 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1957. While in school, he had worked during the summers as an intern for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hills, New Jersey. Upon graduation he was hired by Bell Labs in a full-time position as an acoustical scientist specializing in electroacoustics, physical and architectural acoustics.
In 1960, West was teamed up with Gerhard M. Sessler, a German-born physicist, and the two were tasked to develop an inexpensive, highly sensitive and compact microphone. At the time, condenser microphones were used in most telephones, but were expensive to manufacture and necessitated the use of a large battery source. Microphones convert sound waves into electrical voltages, thus allowing the sound to be transmitted through a cord to a receiver.
Because of the associated expense of condenser microphones, they were impractical for everyday home usage. West and Sessler decided to use an electret (an electrical insulator material) using an inexpensive film made of teflon and stretched it taut so that it hung over the top of a metal surface. After being exposed to an electrical field, the electret was able to hold its charge. As West described, “as you talk into the microphone, pressure fluctuations in the air distort the film. Charges in the metal surface experience fluctuating forces as the polarized electret moves above it. As a result of these forces, a very small current flows from the metal surface through a wire that touches it.” Their electret microphone solved every problem they were seeking to address. It was inexpensive, could hold a charge without having to be connected to a power source, was compact and durable and could be applied to common uses in the office or in the home. The final model was finished in 1962 and on January 14, 1964, the pair received patent number 3,118,022 for their “electroacoustic transducer.” By 1968, the microphone was in wide scale production and was quickly adopted as the industry standard. Approximately 90% of microphones in use today are based on this invention and almost all telephones utilize it, as well as tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids.
While the foil-electret microphone was his most noted invention, West obtained more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents over his lifetime and contributed to hundreds of technical papers and books on acoustics and physics. Perhaps his most significant contributions are his efforts to increase minority and female participation in the field of science. He has headed numerous programs with Bell Labs (founding member of the Association of Black Labs Employees) and upon retiring from the company in 2001 (as a Bell Labs Fellow), he became a research professor at Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (where he serves on the Divisional Diversity Council.
James West received many honors during his career, including being inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1999, Inventor of the Year (by the state of New Jersey) in 1995, elected as the President of the Acoustical Society of America in 1998 and elected to the National Academy of Engineering the same year. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He undoubtedly is proud that he was able to exceed his father’s expectations.