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James E. West forever changed the way we hear each other

by Ezekiel J. Walker
James E. West forever changed the way we hear each other
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If you’ve ever talked on the telephone, you should probably thank James Edward West, who in 1962, received a patent for developing the mic (officially known as the Electroacoustic Transducer Electret Microphone) while with Bell Laboratories.

Ninety percent of microphones used today are based on the creative genius of James Edward West, an inventor born in 1931 in Prince Edwards County, VA. With his colleague, Gerhard Sessler, they received a patent for the groundbreaking technology in 1962. The acoustical technologies employed became widely used for many reasons including high performance, acoustical accuracy and reliability. It was also small, lightweight and cost effective.

At left: A drawing from the patent for the electroacoustic transducer/electret microphone, granted in 1964. At right: Gerhard Sessler and Jim West holding Teflon foil in their lab, with a production Western Electric EL2 electret microphone in the foreground, 1976. Image courtesy Nokia Bell Laboratories.

 

When his mother went to teach on a Native American reservation in return for her college tuition, West was left in the care of his grandmother for several years. It was during this time that he developed the fundamental qualities—to be both inquisitive and nurturing toward the inquisitiveness of others—that would play a significant role in his life.

West would later start at Bell labs as an intern and joined them full-time in 1957 after graduating from Temple University.

One summer, West participated in a research program at Bell Laboratories, the highly acclaimed information technology and communications research company in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He felt comfortable there, excelled quickly, and was offered a permanent position.

“When you  put  a  bunch  of  nerds  together, it kind of normalizes things,” West says. “But one of the other reasons that I joined Bell Labs was that I met and saw other  black  scientists.”

During his career, West also involved himself with programs designed to encourage minorities to take more of a role in the sciences. In the 1970’s, he was a member of the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Labs that influenced management to fund the Summer Research Program (SRP) and Cooperate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) – programs that helped more than 500 non-white students graduate with degrees in science, engineering and mathematics.

According to USPTO, upon retiring from Bell in 2001, he joined Johns Hopkins University as a research professor, and the transition to academia has been much to his liking. “I discovered that Johns Hopkins is a lot like Bell Labs, where the doors are always open and we are free to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines,” James says. “I like the fact that I’m not locked into one small niche here. I wanted to be in an environment that allowed 360 degrees of vision.”

His research at Johns Hopkins includes efforts to improve teleconferencing technology by transmitting stereophonic sound over the Internet and new transducers. In addition, James has long been known for being a mentor to students, and for being active in initiating and participating in programs aimed at encouraging more minorities and women to enter the fields of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM).

LOCATION: Baltimore, MD DATE: January, 15, 2019 —
Jim West Journeys of Innovation feature story about his career and current work at Johns Hopkins University. CREDIT: (Photo by Jay Premack/USPTO)

In his office, among the most prized items are the images and objects commemorating his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 and his receipt of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony in 2007.

As the inventor of the microphone, James West has received numerous awards and honors including a Fellow of IEEE, Industrial Research Institute’s 1998 Achievement Award, 1995 Inventor of the Year from the State of New Jersey and induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. James E. West holds 47 US patents and more than 200 foreign patents from his 40-year career with Bell Laboratories.

“I think I’ve had more failures than successes, but I don’t see the failures as mistakes because I always learned something from those experiences. I see them as having not achieved the initial goal, nothing more than that,” says West.

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