James Edward West – The Inventor Who Overcame Electrocutions And Jim Crow Laws

For most of us, being electrocuted and left paralyzed by an electric socket would mean complete repulsion from electricity. For James Edward West, however, it sparked a fascination with electricity that would end up revolutionizing the microphone.

Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia on Feb 10, 1931, James West was on course to become an inventor since he was a child. If young James West had a screwdriver and pliers in his hand, no appliance was safe from his tinkering. West remarked, “I had this need to know what was inside.”

While still a child – and a curious one at that – West was experimenting with a radio one day. After plugging the radio into a socket while standing on a metal bed, he got electrocuted, temporarily paralyzing his body. His brothers managed to pull him away from the socket, but the experience left a permanent mark on West. After that day, he became thoroughly enthralled with electricity.
Naturally, since that day, James West’s chosen path in life lay in electronics. His parents would object to this decision, however, considering it was nearly impossible to find a decent employment in electronics as a black man during the height of Jim Crow laws. They wanted him to pursue the medical field instead – which was one of the few paths open to African Americans at the time.
He enrolled in Hampton University, but his studies had to be put on hold in lieu of him being drafted into the Korean War. After returning from the war, he switched over to Temple University in 1953 and pursued a degree in solid state physics. During the summers he would intern at Bell Laboratories in their Acoustic Research Department in Murray Hill, New Jersey. This internship eventually led to a job as an acoustical scientist at Bell Labs in 1957.

In 1960, while still an employee of Bell Labs, West was partnered with another scientist, Gerhard M. Sessler and they were tasked to create a cost effective, overly sensitive and compact microphone. This project ended up with the creation of the foil electret transducer – also known as the electret microphone. The greatest benefit of this product lay in the fact that it was much more sensitive to sound when compared to other carbon microphones. By 1968, there was a massive demand for the electret microphone, becoming an industry standard along the way. As it stands today, over 90 percent of most microphones utilize this technology in some form – this means everything ranging from telephones, to cameras, to monitors and whatever lies in between has been influenced by the electret microphone.

In 2001, after over forty years at Bell Labs, West would leave the company and go on to join John Hopkins as a research professor at the Whiting School of Engineering. He considered John Hopkins to be highly similar to Bell Labs, in the sense that researchers from different fields were free to team up with each other – which not only opened up a new realm for learning but for research and development as well.

While there can be no doubt that James West was a stellar inventor, one side that cannot be overlooked is his advocation of greater diversity in science and technology. One example of this lies in the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE), an organization founded by west to “to “address placement and promotional concerns of Black Bell Laboratories employees.”. He also played a central role in the creation of the Corporate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP), which was catered to graduate students perusing degrees in sciences. The CRFP, along with a Summer Research Program provided various opportunities for more than 500 (non-white) students.

James West has over 140 professional publications to his name and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1998. West also holds countless other awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from Michigan State University as well as New Jersey Institute of Technology to name a few. Perhaps his most distinguished and noteworthy award would be the National Medal of Technology – considered to be the highest award in technology – which he was given in 2006. For West, however his greatest honor was being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention, the electret microphone. West would later remark, “Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Marconi — you know, all my heroes — these were people that, when I grew up, I wanted to be like them… To be mentioned in the same breath was kind of devastating. Wow. It couldn’t be real”