Have you heard? James E. West celebrates a milestone birthday on February 10.
The world hears things a lot better due to the efforts of West, an acoustical science inventor who turns 90 this month. The back of his USPTO inventor card says: “Ninety percent of all microphones produced annually and used in everyday items such as telephones, hearing aids, camcorders, and multimedia computers employ West and Sessler’s technology.”
West holds more than 200 U.S. and foreign patents, highlighted by the electret microphone. He and co-inventor Gerhard Sessler developed the electroacoustic transducer and were granted U.S. Patent No. 3,118,022 on Jan. 14, 1964.
The two invented the electret microphone, also called the electric condenser microphone, while working for Nokia Bell Laboratories. Before their invention, condenser microphones required a battery from an external source to power the electromagnetic field needed to convert sound into an electrical signal.
The electret harnessed the electromagnetic field of enough contained electrons to produce the charge needed for the microphone. Electrets are lightweight and relatively affordable to produce.
West has been fascinated by electronics since childhood—so much, that his story almost ended before it could begin.
When he was 8, he was working on a broken radio and plugged it into a ceiling outlet while standing on the brass footboard of his bed. A bolt of 120 volts of electricity shot through his body, temporarily paralyzing him. His brother knocked him onto the floor to break the shock.
Even as a young adult, West “very definitely disappointed” his parents “when I switched my major from pre-med to physics,” he told the American Institute of Physics.
But he enjoyed a successful and inspirational career—highlighted by four decades at Bell—and influenced generations to come. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 and in 2006 was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, America’s highest honor for invention.
West has overcome racial barriers and worked to minimize them, convincing Bell Labs to promote more STEM opportunities for minorities. The company’s corporate research fellowship program recently funded, mentored, and graduated about 600 minority PhDs in three years.