Dr. James West’s electret microphone changed the business of media recording

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 26, 2024 4:16 PM EDT
Dr James E. West. Photo credit: Johns Hopkins University

In 2023, the global microphone industry was valued at around $7 billion. The high demand for hearing aids, virtual reality (VR) headsets and smartphones is driving the growth of the microphones market. 90 percent of the 2 billion microphones manufactured yearly use Dr. James West’s electret microphones.

His invention has transformed the production of recording equipment and professional sound measurement instrument. The electret microphone is popular for its high performance, accuracy and reliability. It is also of low cost, small size and light.

West was born on February 10, 1931 in his maternal grandfather’s house in Virginia because the local hospital refused to admit Black people. He grew up with his grandmother as his mother was a teacher on a Native American reservation. She later worked as a schoolteacher at Langley Air Force Base during World War II but lost her job due to her involvement in the NAACP. She became one of the famous Hidden Figures.

While living with his formerly enslaved grandmother, West became inquisitive and encouraged others to take on this attribute. He wanted to understand how things work and would often take apart items like his grandfather’s pocket watch to explore their inner mechanics. West became interested in electricity at 12-years-old while installing electrical wiring in homes with his cousin.

He attended Hampton University on a pre-medical track. West was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and received a Purple Heart for his service. He attended Temple University to study physics and initially excluded from study groups. He was soon invited due to his ability to solely solve complicated group problems.

West quickly excelled at his internship in a research program at Bell Labs. He was offered a permanent position following completion of his Degree. Alongside his his research partner, West worked to create a microphone that was compact, cheap and highly sensitive microphone. The result was a groundbreaking high performance technology with acoustical accuracy and reliability.

The electret microphone used an electret, a material that can be permanently charged or polarized following exposure to an electric field to covert sound energy. Manufacturing the microphone required thin sheets of polymer electret film coated with metal on one side to form the membrane of the movable plate capacitor that converts sound to high quality electrical signals. Previously, most microphones needed a depletive and expensive battery to transform sound into an electrical signal. The electret microphone saved space, money and was sound sensitive. West received the patent for invention in 1962 and it has since become the standard.

“I think I’ve had more failures than successes, but I don’t see the failures as mistakes because I always learned something from those experiences. I see them as having not achieved the initial goal, nothing more than that,” West on how he’s learned from failure.

West holds 47 US patents and over 200 foreign patents from his 40-year career at Bell Labs. In addition to his innovations, he was an advocate for diversity in science and technology. He co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE) and was instrumental in the creating the Corporate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) and the Summer Research Program.

In 2001, West retired from Bell and joined Johns Hopkins University as a research Professor. He was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 and received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President George W. Bush in 2007.