James E. West

James E. West
James E. West
  • From:

    Johns Hopkins University | Baltimore, Maryland

  • Year:


  • Subject:

    Electrical Engineering

  • Award:

    Benjamin Franklin Medal

  • Citation:

    With Gerhard M. Sessler, for the invention and development of the first practical electret microphone, which can inexpensively be made small enough to fit into cellular phones, digital cameras, and other portable devices.

Gerhard Sessler and James West invented the most ubiquitous microphone in use today—the small, affordable, and high-performance foil electret microphone, which now serves as the basis of 90% of the more than 2 billion microphones produced annually. Working at Bell Labs in the 1960s, Sessler and West replaced the traditional microphone condenser—which was expensive, bulky, and demanded a high voltage input—with an "electret" foil. This foil, made of a piece of fluoroethylenepropylene, commonly known as Teflon, can permanently hold a charge independent from an electrical source. ("Electret" is a combination of the words "electric" and "magnet," since it can hold a permanent electric charge the way a magnet can hold a permanent magnetic charge.) Without the need for a big battery, a low-voltage, easily miniaturized, and inexpensive microphone was introduced, and has found its way into professional microphones, cell phones, hearing aids, baby monitors, video cameras, and more.

Biographical Information

James West studied physics at Temple University and began working at Bell Labs (later, 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. Throughout his career, he has been active in programs to support minorities in the sciences.

West holds over 40 U.S. patents. He has received numerous awards including the Electrochemical Society of America's Callinan Award, the National Patent Law Association's Lewis Howard Latimer Light Switch and Socket Award, New Jersey Inventor of the Year for 1995, the Acoustical Society of America's Silver Medal in Engineering Acoustics, the National Society of Black Engineers' Golden Torch Award, the Industrial Research Institute's Achievement Award, the Ronald H. Brown American Innovator Award, induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the Lewis Howard Latimer Achievement Award.

Information as of April 2010