Looking back on his childhood days in Prince Edward County, Virginia, acoustical scientist James Edward West, says curiosity ruled his life. “If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger,” remembers James with a laugh. “I had this need to know what was inside.” One day when he was eight years old, his curiosity resulted in a harrowing, but life-changing experience. While propped on his bed’s brass footboard, he stretched upward to plug the cord of a radio he had repaired into the ceiling’s empty light socket, just to see what would happen. Suddenly his hand became sealed to the socket as 120 volts of electricity shimmied through his body, freezing him in place until his brother knocked him from the footboard and onto the floor. “I became fascinated by electricity after that, just completely fascinated.”
Why He’s Important: If you’ve ever used such devices as a telephone, tape recorder or music recording equipment, you’ve most likely used James’ invention. He, with his research partner Gerhard Sessler, developed the foil electret microphone in 1962 while they were scientists at Bell Laboratories. Ninety percent of microphones used today are based on the ingenuity and principles of this invention. An electret microphone is a type of condenser microphone, which eliminates the need for a polarizing power supply by using a permanently charged material. Although electret materials have been known since the 1920s and were proposed as condenser microphone elements several times, these models were considered impractical until the foil electret type was invented by James and his partner.
Other Achievements: James holds 47 US patents and more than 200 foreign patents from his 40-year career with Bell Laboratories. Because of his invention and other contributions to acoustical science, he has received numerous awards and honors including: being named a Fellow of IEEE, receiving the Industrial Research Institute’s Achievement Award, receiving the Inventor of the Year award from the State of New Jersey, and being inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. In addition, he is also involved with programs designed to encourage minorities to explore and enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Current Activities: He is now with the Whiting School of Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University where he is a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
In His Own Words: Commenting how disappointed his parents were years ago when he decided to study physics instead of medicine, James says: “In those days in the South, the only professional jobs that seemed to be open to a black man were a teacher, a preacher, a doctor or a lawyer. My father introduced me to three black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics. The best jobs they could find were at the post office. My father said [in pursuing physics] I was taking the long road toward working at the post office.”
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