Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: James E. West

James E West is a legendary acoustician, inventor, researcher, and professor. Along with his colleague Gerhard Sessler, West developed the foil-electret transducer for acoustic technology. West’s invention is now used in the majority of cell phones, tape recorders, baby monitors, camcorders, hearing aids, professional microphones and other sound equipment. He has been awarded 60 US patents and over 200 foreign patents.

In 1953, he began studying at Temple University where he earned a coveted spot as a summer intern for Bell Labs. After earning his bachelor’s degree in physics, he went to work full-time for Bell Labs where he built an extraordinary career in electronics as an acoustical scientist. When he was younger, West’s parents worried racism and Jim Crow would keep him from having a fulfilling career, but he was determined to satisfy his fascination.

In the mid-1950s, West worked with German physicist Gerhard Sessler to develop the electret transducer. The device was compact, inexpensive to produce and highly accurate. By 1968, the electret microphone was mass produced. 90 percent of all contemporary microphones still use the technology today.

In addition to being a great inventor, West has used his platform to educate and empower others. He has worked with initiatives to encourage more women and people of color to pursue careers in STEM. He has also authored or contributed to over 150 technical papers and several books covering acoustics, solid-state physics and material science.

James E. West has been recognized for his technological innovations. He was New Jersey’s Inventor of the year in 1995 and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2006, he received the National Medal of Technology which is the nation’s highest award for technological innovation. He holds honorary doctorates from Michigan State University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. West now teaches and researches at Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering.

The Ellison for Congress team salutes James E. West for his advancements in technology. The next time you use a piece of sound technology we hope you will remember West’s contributions.