James West: 13 Things To Know About The Black Man With 250 Patents Who Invented The Modern Microphone

James West: 13 Things To Know About The Black Man With 250 Patents Who Invented The Modern Microphone


Dr. James Edward Maceo West with a prototype of his smart digital stethoscope, Feb. 28, 2019 (Sonavi Labs)

Many everyday products that Americans use were invented by Black people, even though this info is not widely shared. One such product is the modern microphone. A Black man named James West holds 250 patents and helped invent the modern microphone.

Alexander Graham Bell patented the first microphone in 1876, but West came up with a much ore practical version for today’s world.

Here are 13 things to know about the West.

1. Who is James West?

Born Feb. 10, 1931, in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia, West is an American inventor and acoustician. He attended a college in Hampton, Virginia, and later transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia after a brief stint in the military. He began working at Bell Labs (now Lucent Technologies) in 1957, where he had previously held an internship. He retired from Lucent in 2001 and has since been teaching and researching at Johns Hopkins, where he continues to work on microphone technology. Though he is now 90, he still teaches. He is a research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering.

2. West has a childhood curiosity

West’s curiosity about how thing work started early. The story goes he was always taking things apart, including his grandfather’s prized pocket watch. A near tragedy sparked West’s interest in electricity. When he was about nine years old, he plugged an old radio into an outlet while standing on a metal bed on a humid day, according to African American History Program. When he plugged it in, an electrical charge caused West to be temporarily paralyzed his body. His brothers rescued him by pulling him away from the outlet. West, it is reported, has been intrigued by electricity ever since.

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3. The scientific dreams of West

Although his parents were leery of his career choice, West pursued a career in electronics. According to African American History Program, his parents warned him that as a Black man in the era of segregation he would never land a job in that field. At first, he was convinced to try a different field and entered college as a premed student at Hampton University. His studied were preempted when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. Upon his return, he transferred to Temple University and switched his major to solid-state physics. Solid-state physics is the study of rigid matter, or solids, through methods such as quantum mechanics, crystallography, electromagnetism, and metallurgy. When he switched majors, his family withdrew their financial support, African American History Program reported.

4. Bell Labs

While studying at Temple that West saw an advertisement for a summer internship at Bell Laboratories; he applied and got a position in the Acoustic Research Department in 1957, working with psycho acousticians who investigated how humans perceive sound. The internship focused on determining the shortest time between two beeps that could be detected by the human ear. The experiments and needed responsive headphones and it was West’s task was to create these headphones.

5.Microphone check

While trying to create a headphone while interning at Bell Labs, West stumbled across a scientific phenomenon that would revolutionize how the world communicates, Chemistry World reported.

This discovery led him to create the modern microphone that now sits inside every telephone and cellphone.

6.The Discovery made by West

While perusing the Bell Labs library, West found a paper published in Acustica in 1954 that discussed techniques to build headphones and microphones using a thin insulating sheet of polystyrene. Polystyrene is a clear plastic or stiff foam, a polymer of styrene, used mainly as an insulator in refrigerators and air conditioners.

This is a dielectric, which means that it does not conduct electricity, but stores charge. But West wanted to create something that conducted electricity. So instead, he constructed his headphones using a metal-coated sheet of Mylar.

Mylar is used as a covering over paper and cloth to provide a shiny surface and protective coating and it is used as an electrical and thermal insulator, reflective material, and decoration, ThoughtCo reported.

7. Headphone repair led to modern microphone

West finished his summer internship on a high note after this discovery. But a few months later, his boss at Bell Labs called to say the headphones were no longer working. West returned to Bell Labs to repair them. West decided to pursue a different approach.

8. West introduced the foil electret microphone

Tinkering with the headphones, West accidentally disconnected the power supply from the plastic sheet in the headphones. When he did so, the headphones rang out. Turns out the Mylar was storing a charge, nearly permanently. This discovery prompted West to try and make a better microphone for telephones, Chemistry World reported. Working with a colleague at Bell Labs named Gerhard Sessler, West co-invented the foil electret microphone.

9. A Better microphone

“West’s discovery unshackled microphones from the need for a bias voltage. This made it possible for the electret microphone to be shrunk, opening up markets beyond telephony. Today, foil-electret microphones can be found in telephones, cellphones, computers, toys and hearing aids. Over two billion are made every year,” Chemistry World reported.

10. 90 percent

Nearly 90 percent of more than two billion microphones produced every year are based on the principles of West’s foil-electret and are used in everyday items such as telephones, camcorders, hearing aids, baby monitors, and audio recording devices among others, the Johns Hopkins University Gazette reported.

11. How West passes it on

West created a summer internship program at Bell Labs for students of color. He co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE), an organization formed to “address placement and promotional concerns of Black Bell Laboratories employees.”

12. Patents held by West 

Dr. West has over 250 patents to his name. And at age 90 in 2022, he is still an active inventor working on a device to detect pneumonia in infant lungs, The Baltimore Sun reported.

13. Pushes for diversity in Science

Throughout his career West, who has won countless awards and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999, has been a fervent advocate for greater diversity in the fields of science and technology. Since 2015, Dr. West has served on the Board of Directors of the Ingenuity Project, a Baltimore non-profit that supports talented middle and high school students in science and math.

Dr. James Edward Maceo West with a prototype of his smart digital stethoscope, Feb. 28, 2019
(Sonavi Labs),  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sonavi_Labs