James Edward West – Father of the Modern Microphone
Having the pleasure to enjoy an exquisite voice from a musician at a concert, learning from a well spoken leader at a conference in front of thousands of people, or watching a play and witnessing the story unfold first hand are all important events we go to and enjoy. Imagine if we couldn’t enjoy these types of events because there was never the invention of the microphone. Without the microphone, we wouldn’t have witnessed the great shows and events we have been able to enjoy up until today.
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On February 10, 1931 James Edward West was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia. As a young boy he was fascinated with various electronic devices and was eager to disassemble them to see how they worked. This nearly got him killed when he was only 8 years of age. Thinking he had repaired a broken radio, he plugged it in to an outlet that he could only reach by standing on his bed’s brass foot board. The 120 volts of electricity went through his body paralyzing him in place. His brother happened to be standing close by and knocked him to the floor and stopped the shock. Instead of becoming afraid of electricity after this event, he was intrigued even more.
Educational and Employment Experience
West’s father encouraged James to pursue an education and wanted him to go into the medical profession and become a doctor. His argument was that at that time there were not many blacks hired for science related fields. But despite his father’s warnings he entered Temple University in 1953 after completing high school. He earned his BS in Physics in 1957. During the summer months he worked as an intern at Bell Laboratories for the Acoustics Research Department. After graduation he was hired for a full time position as one of their acoustical scientists and specialized in electro acoutsics, physical and architectural acoustics.
The Road to Invention
West and a German born physicist, Gerhard M. Sessler were teamed up to develop a less expensive, very sensitive and compact microphone in 1960. At that time, most telephones used condenser microphones but manufacturing them was very expensive and they needed a heavy duty battery for a power source. They were very expensive and therefore were not practical for everyday home usage. Sessler and West decided to use an electret which was able to hold a charge in their new microphone. The smaller, less expensive microphone that they invented solved the problems that they wanted to address. It was cheaper and could hold a charge without the need of a power source. It was durable and compact and could be used for many common household needs in the office and home. They finished their final model of this new microphone in 1962 and received their patent on the “electro acoustic transducer” on January 14, 1964. By 1968 the new microphone was used in a wide scale and was soon adopted as the industry standard. About 90 percent of any microphones used today are based on these two men’s invention. Most all types of phones use it as well as tape recorders, baby monitors, hearing aids and camcorders.
The electric microphone was West’s most noted invention, but he obtained over 100 US and foreign patents during his lifetime. He also contributed to literally hundreds of books and technical papers on physics and acoustics. But he also made significant contributions to increasing the participation of minorities and females in the science field. He was one of the founding members of the Association of Black Labs Employees and has also headed several programs with the association. In 2001 he retired from the company as a Bell Labs Fellow and began to function in the role of a research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He also serves presently on the Divisional Diversity Council.
During his long career, James West was the recipient of many honors. In 1999 he was inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. In 1995 he was named the Inventor of the Year by the state ofNew Jerseyand in 1998 he was elected as the President of the Acoustical Society of America as well as to the National Academy of Engineering. In 2000 Mr. West was granted an honorary Doctorate of Science by the New Jersey Institute of Technology. It is obvious that he exceeded his father’s expectations.
This entry was posted by Eugene Aronsky & Moshe Zchut on January 28, 2013 at 10:30 am, and is filed under inventions, inventors, modern inventors, tech history, technology icons. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0.You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
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