James Edward Maceo West’s work revolutionized how people around the world hear and transmit sound. In 1962, West, then a Bell Laboratories research scientist, collaborated with his colleague Dr. Gerhard M. Sessler to develop the foil electret microphone.
Until then, most microphones, which convert sound into an electrical signal, required a large and expensive battery to function. West and Sessler, on the other hand, used an electret, in this case, Teflon, to drive the sound conversion. Electrets are materials that, when exposed to an electric field, become permanently charged or polarized.
The foil electret microphone saved space and money while also being quite sensitive to sound. It improved hearing aids, for example, allowing those who wear them to go for a walk without experiencing painful vibrations. The technology has also been used in blood pressure readings and in the United States space program. Cell phones, computers, hearing aids, and audio recording equipment are all used now.
West, who was born on February 10, 1931, in Farmville, Virginia, had an early interest in science. He accidentally shocked himself while plugging in the radio while still in elementary school; rather than frightening him, the experience only heightened his desire to learn about technology and its applications. West had that opportunity within a few years, wiring homes for electricity as an assistant to an elderly relative.
During his childhood, West’s parents, Samuel Edward and Matilda, worked in a variety of professions. For example, his father ran a funeral home and sold insurance, while his mother was a teacher and worked at Langley Air Force Base. Matilda West, a local NAACP leader, was fired from the base during the McCarthy era as a result of her organizing activities. West was also interested in politics for the majority of his life. He grew up reading W.E.B. DuBois and attended Black Panther Party meetings as an adult. He was known at work for speaking his mind and co-founded the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Laboratories in 1970.
West’s family expected him to continue his education after high school in a traditional field such as medicine, education, law, or the ministry. West, on the other hand, had other plans. Though he began college as a premed student at Hampton University in Virginia, he changed his major after serving in the military during the Korean War. He enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after being discharged, and graduated with a BS in Physics in 1957. Following graduation, West began working as a scientist in Bell Laboratories’ Acoustics Research Department in Murray Hill, New Jersey, one of only a few African Americans employed by the research firm at the time.
West and Sessler collaborated on the foil electret microphone in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Initially tasked with researching the mechanics of human hearing in general, West and his colleague began by using old-fashioned battery-operated microphones. Their research led to the study of electrets and, eventually, the realization that the new material of Teflon could function superbly as an electret, allowing the transfer of sound to an electrical signal. Their US patent #3,118,022 for the foil electret microphone was issued on January 14, 1964.
West worked at Bell Laboratories for over forty years and holds over 200 U.S. and foreign patents. When he retired in 2001, he was named a Bell Laboratories Fellow, the company’s highest honor. Soon after, he was appointed to the Johns Hopkins University faculty as a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
West has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Acoustical Society of America, and he has honorary degrees from Michigan State University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 2006. The medal is the country’s highest honor for technological innovation.
Nathaniel is West’s only sibling. His wife, Marlene, and he have four adult children.