His name may not ring a bell, but every time a phone rings, the technology that James E. West helped develop is likely to get a workout. During a distinguished private-industry career spanning more than 40 years, West co-invented the reliable yet inexpensive electret microphone used in most telephones, tape recorders and other important devices.
But after he retired from Bell Labs in 2001, West decided he wasn't quite ready to hang up his tools. "One thing was clear: I'd had a great life in research. It wasn't broken, so why fix it?" he says. "So I set up interviews with 10 universities, and Johns Hopkins came out on top."
As a result of this decision, West joined the faculty of the Whiting School of Engineering last fall. He is serving as a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
"I discovered that Johns Hopkins was a lot like Bell Labs, where the doors were always open and we were free to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines," he says. "I like the fact that I won't be locked into one small niche here. I wanted to be in an environment that allowed 360 degrees of vision."
West's arrival at Johns Hopkins marks the latest step in a remarkable career that began soon after he chose to ignore his parents' well-meaning advice. His parents were disappointed that he wished to study physics instead of medicine.
"In those days in the South, the only professional jobs that seemed to be open to a black man were a teacher, a preacher, a doctor or a lawyer," says West, who was born in Prince Edward County, Va. "My father introduced me to three black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics. The best jobs they could find were at the post office. My father said I was taking the long road toward working at the post office."
Despite this warning, West pursued his original goal. While attending Temple University, he began working as an intern at Bell Labs during summer breaks. He joined the company full time in 1957.
In 1962, West and his colleague Gerhard Sessler patented the electret microphone, in which thin sheets of polymer film, metal-coated on one side, are given a permanent charge to serve as the membrane and bias of a condenser microphone that helps convert sound to electrical signals with high fidelity.
Almost 90 percent of all microphones produced today are based on the principles developed by West and Sessler. West spent more than four decades with Bell Labs, building upon this research and obtaining more than 200 U.S. and foreign patents. West also has authored or contributed to more than 100 technical papers and several books on acoustics, solid-state physics and materials science.
His achievements have led to numerous professional honors. In 1998, West was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. A year later, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Acoustical Society of America, and has served as president of the latter organization. He has received the Golden Torch Award of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Silver Medal in Engineering Acoustics from the Acoustical Society of America. In 1997, the New Jersey Institute of Technology awarded West an honorary doctor of science degree.
Ilene Busch-Vishniac, dean of the Whiting School, encouraged West to continue his research at Johns Hopkins. His contributions to modern technology, she says, should not be underestimated.
"Jim is one of the two inventors of the polymer electret microphone," says the dean, whose research field is also acoustics. "This microphone is now in virtually every telephone in the world, in all of the hearing aids and in many portable tape recorders. The last estimate I saw suggested that over a billion electret microphones are produced worldwide per year, all thanks to Jim and his collaborator Gerhard Sessler."
Busch-Vishniac, who has collaborated on projects with West, adds, "Jim's real talents lie in his uncanny ability to connect with people. He is a terrific listener, a wonderful mentor, a fabulous matchmaker, connecting people who should know one another but don't. Many of the contacts I have made throughout my career, and many of my research successes, I owe to working with Jim and to introductions he made."
Although his Johns Hopkins appointment is in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, West says he looks forward to engaging in joint research with faculty members in mechanical engineering, materials science and biomedical engineering. West has helped to develop medical devices, including a noninvasive method of picking up critical sounds from the cardiovascular system.
Today, West is active in programs aimed at encouraging more minorities and women to enter the fields of science, technology and engineering. At Johns Hopkins he plans to help recruit more minority and women faculty members and students.
His lab inside Barton Hall is under construction, and West plans to begin mentoring undergraduate engineering students this year. His research projects will include efforts to improve teleconferencing technology by transmitting stereophonic sound over the Internet. Above all, West says he has no desire to slow down. "My hobby is my work," he says. "I have the best of both worlds because I love what I do. Do I ever get tired of it? Not so far."