Black History Month: Celebrating African American Telephony Inventors and Innovators – Dr. James Edward West

Feb 21, 2023, 21:39 PM by Carolyn Pilgrom

Alvaria and our global employees are proud to celebrate Black History Month and the African American contributors to the field of telephony with this five-part series.   

In part three of our exploration of African American telephony inventors, we are excited to discuss someone who made it possible to have cell phones that can go in our pocket, make web calls through our laptops and even have conversations through headphones and earbuds. This inventor realized that one does not need a giant mouthpiece or a whole room of sound equipment to have the crystal-clear sound we are used to and revolutionized the microphone to what we know today.  

Sound amplification has been a human need since the beginning, horns are the earliest example, which were used as early as humans began hunting on the Savannah to coordinate attacks and later as an early warning system for possible tribal threats. Our ancestors would not believe, that thanks to this innovator, we can now communicate with a device that can fit in our ear; within the rim of a pair of sunglasses, or even in a watch. 

The large majority of microphones used in technology today can be credited to the technology co-invented by Dr. James E. West.  In 1962, Dr. West teamed up with Gerhard M. Sessler at Bell Laboratories to create the electroacoustic transducer/ electret microphone, with the goal to develop a cost-effective, compact, sensitive microphone. It worked due to the electret transducers they had developed using a small, metalized Teflon foil. This innovation became the industry standard in transducer technology and was patented in 1964.  

Dr. West’s contributions to acoustic science go beyond his electroacoustic transducer. He has measured the acoustics of the New York Philharmonic and suggested improvements, he has studied the acoustic environments of hospitals and confirmed that they are too loud and disadvantageous to staff as well as patients, and he even worked on a device to detect pneumonia in the lungs of children! For all of this, his awards are many, including a Purple Heart for his bravery in the Korean war, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his work on the electret microphone, and an induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. 

In addition to his multiple contributions to acoustical science and many well-deserved awards, West has been a devout advocate for greater diversity and inclusion in the fields of science and technology. While at Bell Laboratories, West co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE), an organization formed to “address placement and promotional concerns of Black Bell Laboratories employees.” He has also been instrumental in creating fellowship programs for graduating minority students in STEM programs and has been a mentor to up-and-comers in the science and technology fields.  

Similar to our previous inventor, we don’t often hear about the inventors of the technology, instead we hear about those who are using the invention to make modern life easier. If you are interested in learning more about Dr. West, take a look at this interview with the American Institute of Physics.  

In part four of our series, we take a look at an inventor that made cell phones possible as well but from an infrastructure standpoint.