Created the Affordable Electret Microphone
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.
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.
A pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, including a synthetic form of cortisone
A pioneer in the field of blood transfusions who developed improved techniques for blood storage.
Invented lubrication systems for steam engines. His devices were referred to as “The Real McCoy.”
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.
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From Dreams Comes Success
Walker remembered that the formula for her hair grower came to her in a dream: “God answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big Black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.”