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Meet Dr. James E. West, The Black Man Who Invented Electret Microphone

Ninety percent of microphones used today are based on the ingenuity of James Edward West, an African-American inventor born in 1931 in Prince Edwards County, VA. If you’ve ever talked on the telephone, you’ve probably used his invention.

 

Dr. James E. West and a colleague, Gerhard Sessler, developed the mic (officially known as the Electroacoustic Transducer Electret Microphone) while with Bell Laboratories, and they received a patent for it in 1962. The acoustical technologies employed became widely used for many reasons including high performance, acoustical accuracy and reliability. It is also small, lightweight and cost effective.

West started at Bell labs as an intern and joined them full-time in 1957 after graduating from Temple University. As the inventor of the microphone, James West holds 47 U.S. patents and more than 200 foreign patents on microphones and techniques for making polymer foil electrets. He has authored more than 100 papers and has contributed to books on acoustics, solid state physics and material science.

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He has received numerous awards, including the Golden Torch Award in 1998 sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Lewis Howard Latimer Light Switch and Socket Award in 1989. He was chosen New Jersey Inventor of the Year in 1995 and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. He was appointed president of the Acoustical Society of American in 1997 and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Both James West and Gerhard Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.

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.

James Edward West now works with Johns Hopkins University as a research professor.

 

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