Inventors that Changed the World – James E. West

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Inventors who changed technology for the better.

Thomas Edison was the first to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1973 and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and founder of AT&T (which houses Bell Laboratories) received the award in 1974. Among this prestigious list of inventors is James E. West, receiving the award in 1999 for the co-invention of the electret microphone.

While working at Bell Laboratories in the early 1960s, West was assigned to the development of a cost-effective compact microphone. The microphones at the time, found primarily in telephones, needed a polarizing power supply to operate. By 1962, the electret microphone was fully developed as a solution to this power supply problem.

The term “Electret” stems from a combination of “electric” and “magnet,” and is a dielectric material that holds and transmits an electrical charge for a few months under normal temperatures. Combined with Teflon material, the components would permanently hold a charge and were more efficient to produce. The electret microphone was in mass production by 1968.

How James E. West Helped Change the World

Over 90% of the microphones in use today utilize the electret microphone and it’s estimated that more than 2 billion devices with the mic are produced worldwide each year. Some everyday items with an electret microphone include:

  • Telephones and smartphones
  • Computers and tablets
  • Hearing aids and baby monitors
  • Cameras and recording equipment

James E. West received a master’s degree in Physics from Temple University in 1957 and worked at Bell Laboratories for 40 years. In addition to co-inventing the electret microphone, West holds almost 250 patents in the United States and internationally. While at Bell Labs, he co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE), an organization “dedicated to opening up career opportunities for black scientists and professionals.” Later renamed the African-American Body of Laboratory Employees, ABLE still exists today.

In 2006, West was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President George W. Bush and in 2010, with his co-inventor Gerhard M. Sessler, received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering from The Franklin Institute. Since retiring from Bell Labs in 2001, West is a research professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Most recently in 2018, West was awarded the John Scott Award for inventions that have contributed to the “comfort, welfare, and happiness of mankind.”

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