James Edward West

born: Feb 10 1931

place: Prince Edward County, Va.

Temple University (BS - Physics) 1957.

Research Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University

JAMES WEST was born in 1931 Prince Edward County Virginia. Curiosity ruled his life. "If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger,"Mr. West recalled of his childhood. "I had this need to know what was inside." When James E. West was 8 years old, he propped himself on his bed's brass footboard one afternoon and stretched to plug the cord of a radio he had repaired into a ceiling outlet. It was one of his first experiments. Mr. West's hand sealed to the light socket as 120 volts of electricity shimmied through his body, freezing him in place until his brother knocked him from the footboard and onto the floor. "I became fascinated by electricity after that, just completely fascinated. I needed to learn everything I could about it."

His fascination with electricity lead him to major in 1953 in Physics at Temple University. "In those days in the South, the only professional jobs that seemed to be open to a black man were a teacher, a preacher, a doctor or a lawyer," says West, who was born in Prince Edward County, Va. "My father introduced me to three black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics." These men were not hired by univeristies because there were black." The best jobs they could find were at the post office." So West's parents wanted him to study medicine, but instead he focused on Physics. " My father said I was taking the long road toward working at the post office."

West is perhaps best known, however, for his contributions to the foil-electret microphone, which he co-invented with Gerhard Sessler in 1962. Nearly 90 percent of all microphones built today are based on the principles of the foil-electret. In the electret microphone, thin sheets of polymer electret film are metal-coated on one side to form the membrane of the movable plate capacitor that converts sound to electrical signals with high fidelity. The microphone became widely used because of its high performance, accuracy, and reliability, in addition to its low cost, small size, and light weight. Ninety percent of today's microphones are electret microphones, and they are used in everyday items such as telephones, camcorders, and tape recorders. It is the most commonly used microphone in the world.

In addition to the patent for the foil-electret, West holds 47 U.S. patents and more than 100 outside the U.S., and has authored or contributed to more than 100 technical papers and several books on acoustics, solid-state physics and materials science.

After spending a few summers working at Bell Labs as an intern while attending Temple University in Philadelphia, West joined AT&Tthe Bell Labs in 1957 after graduation from Temple. One of the first things that stood out in his mind back then were how few women and people of color were in the technical ranks. So he co-founded ABLE, the Association of Black Labs Employees, out of which grew the highly successful Cooperative Research Fellowship Program and the Summer Research Program for college students.

During his 40 year career at Bell Labs, West was named a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff. When Bell spun off Lucent Technologies, West went with Lucent and provided technical support to their Intelligent Acoustics Systems. He retired from Lucent in 2001. That same year he became research professor in Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University


  1. West received the George Stibitz Trophy from AT&T in 1993.
  2. West was selected as "Inventor of the Year" in 1995 by the state of New Jersey.I
  3. In 1998, West was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
  4. In 1998 West ws elected the 133rd president of the Acoustical Society of America.
  5. In 1999, he was elected to the Inventor's Hall of Fame.
  6. In 2000, the New Jersey Institute of Technology awarded West an honorary doctorate of science.



  1. An Unquenchable Curiosity: http://www.bell-labs.com/user/feature/archives/jimwest/
  2. President-Elect of the ASA: http://www.bell-labs.com/news/1997/july/23/1.html
  3. Inventors Hal of Fame: http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/150.html
  4. Gazette: http://www.jhu.edu/~gazette/2003/13jan03/13west.html
  5. Are U.S. Innovators Losing Their Competitive Edge? New York Times November 13, 2005

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