The Scientist and Inventor that Changed How the People of the World Hear Each Other
An inventor and acoustician, James West has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and recognized with countless awards, including the National Medal of Technology, the country’s highest award for technological innovation.
Born in the segregated south in 1931, West’s interest in electricity and technology reportedly began after he accidentally shocked himself when plugging in a radio. During his 40 years with Bell Laboratories, West accumulated more than 60 U.S. patents and more than 200 foreign patents using polymer foil electrets.
West grew up in a family committed to fighting for social justice. His mother was one of the “human computers” at NASA’s Langley Research Center until she was fired for her organizing activities for the local NAACP chapter. At Bell Labs, where he was one of only a few black researchers, West co-founded the Association of Black Laboratories Employees.
Building a Trusted Future
West co-invented the foil electret microphone, which is the basis for 90 percent of today’s microphones, from telephones and hearing aids to music recording equipment. Microphone technology had previously required cumbersome and expensive batteries to operate. The foil electret microphone, in contrast, could be permanently charged following exposure to an electric field.
West’s invention resulted in microphones that were less costly, required less space, and were more sensitive to sound. The technology also changed lives, enabling more accurate blood pressure readings and development of hearing aids that could be used while walking without subjecting the wearer to painful vibrations.
At age 90, he continues to work on developing life-changing technologies, including a device to detect pneumonia in an infant’s lungs.