James West

Inventor James West and the Microphone

James Edward West, PhD, was a Bell Laboratories Fellow at Lucent Technologies where he specialized in electro, physical and architectural acoustics. He retired in 2001 after dedicated more than 40 years to the company. He then took a position as a research professor with Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. 

Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia on February 10, 1931, West attended Temple University and interned at Bell Labs during his summer breaks.

Upon his graduation in 1957, he joined Bell Labs and began work in electroacoustics, physical acoustics and architectural acoustics. In conjunction with Gerhard Sessler, West patented the electret microphone in 1964 while working at Bell Laboratories.

West’s Research 

West's research in the early 1960s led to the development of the foil electret transducers for sound recording and voice communication that are used in 90 percent all microphones built today. These electrets are also at the heart of most telephones now being manufactured. The new microphone became widely used because of its high performance, accuracy and reliability. It also cost little to produce, and it was small and light weight.

The electret transducer began as the result of an accident, like many notable inventions. West was fooling around with a radio – he loved taking things apart and putting them back together as a child, or at least attempting to put them back together.

In this instance, he became acquainted with electricity, something that would fascinate him for years. 

West’s Microphone 

James West joined forces with Sessler while he was at Bell. Their goal was to develop a compact, sensitive microphone that wouldn’t cost a fortune to produce. They completed development of their electret microphone in 1962 – it worked on the basis of the electret transducers they had developed – and they began production of the device in 1969.

Their invention became the standard of the industry. The vast majority of microphones used today in everything from baby monitors and hearing aids to telephones, camcorders and tape recorders all use Bell’s technology.

James West holds 47 U.S. patents and more than 200 foreign patents on microphones and techniques for making polymer foil electrets. He has authored more than 100 papers and has contributed to books on acoustics, solid state physics and material science.

He has received numerous awards, including the Golden Torch Award in 1998 sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Lewis Howard Latimer Light Switch and Socket Award in 1989. He was chosen New Jersey Inventor of the Year in 1995 and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. He was appointed president of the Acoustical Society of American in 1997 and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Both James West and Gerhard Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.