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Black History Month: James E West - Inventor

This week for Black History Month, we’re celebrating James E West, a U.S. inventor and professor who, in 1962, developed the electret transducer technology later used in 90 percent of contemporary microphones.

So, if you’ve talked on the telephone, used a tape recorder, camcorder, baby monitor, or hearing aid, his invention is part of the technology!

Early Years

James West was born on February 10, 1931, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. As a child, he was intrigued by how things worked and enjoyed taking apart appliances.

“I had this need to know what was inside.”

After an accident with a radio he had tinkered with, James West became enthralled with the concept of electricity.

James headed to Temple University in 1953 to study physics and worked during the summers as an intern for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He received a bachelor's degree in physics in 1957 and was hired for a full-time position as an acoustical scientist by Bell.


In 1960, while at Bell, James teamed up with fellow scientist Gerhard M. Sessler to develop an inexpensive, highly sensitive, compact microphone. In 1962, they finished development on the product, which relied on their invention of electret transducers. By 1968, the electret microphone was in mass production. James West's and Gerhard Sessler's invention became the industry standard, and today, 90 percent of all contemporary microphones use their technology.

During his career, James also involved himself with programs designed to encourage minorities to take more of a role in the sciences. In the 1970's, he was a member of the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Labs that influenced management to fund the Summer Research Program (SRP) and Cooperate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) – programs that helped more than 500 non-white students graduate with degrees in science, engineering and mathematics.

Current Times

James West retired from Bell in 2001, after more than four decades with the company. After interviewing with several universities, he chose Johns Hopkins and became a research professor at its Whiting School of Engineering in the electrical/computer engineering department.

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