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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 23, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 40
James E. West of WSE to receive Technology Medal at White House

Photo by Will Kirk / HPS

By Phil Sneiderman

James E. West, a Johns Hopkins engineering faculty member who co-invented the microphone used in most telephones and many other electronic devices worldwide, has been named a recipient of the nation's highest honor for technological innovation. In a statement released last week, President George W. Bush announced that West is one of five people who will receive the 2006 National Medal of Technology. Bush will present the medals during a White House awards ceremony on July 27.

Established by an act of Congress in 1980, the Medal of Technology was first awarded in 1985. According to the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, the medal is given annually to individuals, teams and companies for their outstanding contributions to the nation's economic, environmental and social well-being through the development and commercialization of technology products, processes and concepts; technological innovation; and development of the nation's technological manpower.

At Bell Labs 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 the more than 2 billion 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. He also authored or contributed to more than 140 technical papers.

In 2002 West joined the Johns Hopkins faculty as a research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"Jim West has had a remarkable career," said Nicholas P. Jones, dean of the Whiting School. "His creativity, technical accomplishments and the impact of his research are tremendous and have transformed the ways we communicate. Beyond his contributions to the field of acoustics, he has also demonstrated a deep commitment to mentoring students, collaborating with colleagues and providing educational opportunities in engineering. This is a well-deserved honor, and we are proud to have him as a member of our faculty."

Since joining the Whiting School faculty, West has continued to experiment with new communications materials and technologies and has conducted research aimed at reducing hospital noise. West also has been active in programs designed to encourage more minorities and women to enter the fields of science, technology and engineering.

"I've collaborated with Jim at various levels for almost 30 years now. I know him to be both brilliant and creative," said Ilene Busch-Vishniac, a professor of mechanical engineering who, while serving as dean of the Whiting School, helped recruit West to join the Johns Hopkins faculty. "When you consider his technical accomplishments, such as electret microphones and the speakerphone, and his work to make academic experiences available for black students, such as the creation of the Bell Labs Corporate Research Fellowship Program, Jim is arguably the most accomplished and important black scientist active today. Johns Hopkins is very lucky to have him."

West's achievements have led to numerous professional honors. In 1998, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and 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 and Gold Medals 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. In 2006 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Engineering from Michigan State University.

West was born in 1931 in Farmville, Va., and developed an interest in electronics at an early age. 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," West said in a 2003 interview with the Johns Hopkins Gazette. "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 during summer breaks as an intern at Bell Labs. He joined the company full time in 1957 and continued to work there for more than 40 years.


Related Web sites

U.S. Department of Commerce's Medal of Technology Announcement
'Johns Hopkins Magazine' feature on Jim West on his diversity efforts
'Johns Hopkins Magazine' sidebar on Jim West on his diversity efforts
National Inventors Hall of Fame profile
Acoustical Society of America 2006 Gold Medal Award tribute to West
Famous Black Inventors profile of West


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