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  Sound Reasoning

James West turned a tiny microphone into a very big career. The Hopkins research professor has already revolutionized the field of electroacoustics. Now he's setting his sights on medicine, the Internet, and beyond.

By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Photos by Bill Denison

The first time James West was almost electrocuted, he was more intrigued than shocked.

West was about 10 years old. Someone had thrown away an old radio near his home in rural Virginia, and he wanted to plug it in to see if it worked. Standing on a brass bed in his bedroom, he reached for an electrical outlet in the ceiling.

"It was a nice humid day," he remembers.

He felt the vibration from his fingers to his toes. "My whole body was rattling," he says. "I got hung up. My brother had to push me away."

West wasn't hurt, just sore. But he was hooked. "It was terribly intriguing from a standpoint of how electricity worked," he says. "I had to learn more about that."

That energizing shock in the 1940s created a lasting charge in West's life that led him — many years later — to co-develop a permanently charged microphone that would propel technology, and everyday communications, far beyond the range of that plug-in radio.

"His invention revolutionized the telephone and recording industries," says Fred Juang, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. "Today, billions of units have been made with his electret microphone" — a compact, highly sensitive, and inexpensive alternative to the carbon microphones common in the 1950s.

In fact, every time someone picks up a telephone, turns on a hearing aid, or pulls the string on a talking Elmo doll, sound travels through West's invention, which launched his 40-year career at Bell Laboratories (now Lucent Technologies) and landed him in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

West's name is inked on 47 U.S. and 200 foreign patents. He has authored more than 100 scientific papers in electroacoustical research and related fields. Last year, at 72, an age when most people are comfortably ensconced in retirement, West became a research professor in Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering.

"He's just a wonderful catch," says Hopkins mechanical engineering professor Ilene Busch-Vishniac, who collaborated with West on engineering projects at Bell Labs. Busch-Vishniac, dean of the Whiting School until she stepped down in June, helped lure West to Hopkins last fall. "There were 10 different universities chasing him," she says. "Colleagues at the nine other universities told me, 'We don't know how you got him, but we're jealous.'"

West came to Hopkins, he says, to pursue a variety of research projects — ranging from how to improve teleconferencing technology via the Internet to finding ways to use the small electrical fields generated by electrets to foster cell regeneration. To do so, he hopes to collaborate with a variety of researchers at Homewood and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Like Bell Labs, Hopkins has no high walls between departments or campuses. "If I'm interested in something in astronomy and I want to know more about it," West says, "I [feel] that researchers here are very willing to sit down and talk."

A longtime leader of minority internship and hiring programs at Bell Labs, West also has been named chair of the Whiting School's Divisional Diversity Council, the school's first diversity advisory group. (See "A Dedication to Diversity" below)

Sitting in his office at 214 Barton Hall, West looks far younger than his seven decades. His face is lined, but with character, it seems, not age. His slightly graying hair is pulled back into the nub of a ponytail. His reading glasses hang by a cord around his neck, and a linen handkerchief is tucked into the back pocket of his khakis. A model Formula 1 Ford sits on his windowsill.

West is not a standard-issue academic hire. Though a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a distinguished fellow at Bell Labs, he has no PhD — in fact, he doesn't officially hold a bachelor's degree. (He completed the undergraduate coursework, plus master's courses, at Temple University in Philadelphia, but never matriculated with a bachelor's because he got caught up pursuing his invention.) While in college, he attended Black Panther meetings and read the writings of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. The son of an entrepreneur and a schoolteacher, and the grandson of a former slave, he was a maverick in his own family because he wanted to study physics.

In 1999, West was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in Akron, Ohio, for the invention of the electret microphone. Despite all of his accomplishments, he was in awe.

"Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Marconi — you know, all my heroes — these were people that, when I grew up, I wanted to be like them," he says of other renowned members of the Hall of Fame. "To be mentioned in the same breath was kind of devastating. Wow. It couldn't be real."

West and fellow researcher Gerhard Sessler at Bell Labs in 1976, with their electret microphone.
Photo courtesy of Lucent Technologies Inc.
Born James Edward Maceo West on February 10, 1931, he came into the world in his family's home because his mother was not allowed in the whites-only hospital in the town of Farmville, Virginia, about an hour's drive west of Richmond. His family wasn't poor. Over the years, his father, Samuel Edward West, had launched a series of businesses. At various points, he was a funeral home owner, B & O Railroad porter, and insurance salesman.

"He did what was needed to keep food on the table," his son remembers. James West's uncle, a dentist, built a medical clinic that served mostly the black community; West and his brother, Nathaniel, were expected to work there someday.

"My father's family felt very strongly that the direction in education should be in the four professions at that time open to black people," says West, who speaks softly, thoughtfully, but with an edge. "Lawyer, doctor, teacher, and preacher — we had all of them in the family."

Nathaniel West did end up practicing dentistry in their uncle's clinic and went on to teach public health dentistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He remembers his older brother's tinkering and the trouble he got into. "He used to take my toys to pieces," says Nathaniel West, professor of endodontics at Howard. "He took his grandfather's watch and left it in pieces and couldn't put it back. That's what stands out in my mind — that watch."

"A screwdriver and pliers were very dangerous. Anything that had screws in it, I could open up," James West remembers. "I was always fascinated by how things work and why things work. Models of airplanes, cars, and so forth . . . that is where I lived."

In the 1940s, West's cousin Edward B. Allen, a schoolteacher, worked parttime wiring homes in rural Virginia that were just getting electricity. At age 12, West went to work for him, learning everything Edward knew about electricity. "My job was to crawl under the houses and carry the wire from one place to another," West remembers. "It was a relief for my mom, too. Somebody else had to worry about what I got into.

"As a result of that training, I learned how electricity behaves. Today, if I have to change an outlet, I never go and throw the switch" — a feat, he says, that usually "impresses people."

When he graduated from high school, he first enrolled as a premed at Hampton University in Virginia in the late 1940s. When he transferred to Temple, he decided to switch to solid state physics. His parents weren't pleased — he was cut off financially. "I had decided not to stay in the sciences that led to premed. So I was cut loose, put on my own," he remembers. "I guess I learned very early in life that in spite of the punishment, I was going to do what was most important to me.

"My parents were tough on me, but boy, do I appreciate that now. I've never forgotten the discipline and other things important in life," he adds. "My parents were both active in organizations focused on the emancipation of black people. [W.E.B.] Du Bois was one of the people I learned about early in life. All of this has been part of my upbringing. It's a very important part of why I'm interested in diversity."

West's mother, Matilda, a schoolteacher, also worked at Langley Air Force Base during the Joseph McCarthy era. She lost her job at the base because she was a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group that the red-baiting senator had labeled communist. Her son would go further, attending Black Panthers meetings in Philadelphia when he was a student at Temple. He also became a fan of Trotsky. "I became more immersed in racist attitudes toward black people." he says. "Living in Philadelphia, I saw a whole different perspective from the standpoint of poverty and the deplorable situations in which some people are forced to survive. I lost confidence in the system."

During his college years, before he transferred to Temple, West was drafted to serve in the Korean War, where he was awarded a Purple Heart. But West, who later became a pacifist, doesn't like to talk about his military service. "War is no way to solve anything," he says. "I've put most of that stuff out of my head."

He found solace in science. West was hired as an intern at Bell Laboratories in the mid-1950s, when few African Americans worked for the firm. He would become one of those kid-in-a-candy-store scientists who love their jobs. Yet, because of his anti-authoritarian politics, he also would eventually challenge the corporate culture. Bell Labs, one of America's technological powerhouses, was founded by West's hero, inventor Alexander Graham Bell. West wanted the company to retain its emphasis on research, not profit, and he was known for sending company CEOs pointed memos, requesting meetings, and even approaching a top executive on an airline flight to talk about where the company should focus its energy.

"He's not afraid of being fired," says Juang, a colleague of West's at Bell for 20 years. "He is a very strong character."

Over the years, West says, he earned only $1 from all the patents that bear his name. As members of the Bell Labs research team, scientists like West did not personally profit from their inventions. That didn't matter. Money wasn't his goal.

"People say, 'Oh gosh. You really got treated badly,'" he says. "But I'm having such a great life. Being allowed to be what I wanted to be has been worth far more than I ever imagined. The pursuit of knowledge and expansion of knowledge is really a privilege."

"People say, 'Oh gosh. You really got treated badly,'" West says. "But I'm having such a great life. Being allowed to be what I wanted to be has been worth far more than I ever imagined." His focus on science for science's sake prompted the invention that would charge West's career. In the mid-1950s, a group of psychoacousticians (psychologists interested in sound) at Bell Labs and elsewhere wanted to understand the performance of the human ear, West remembers. The question: What sort of time delay between two pulses is required for the ear to hear two separate sounds? (They later found out it's 15 milliseconds). But to answer the question, they needed a linear transducer — a microphone and earphone — with a broad frequency to efficiently convert electrical energy into sound pressure, and vice versa.

Among other inadequacies, the microphones of the day — condenser microphones invented at Bell Labs in the early 1900s — could not produce enough sound pressure for such fine measurements. Condenser mikes also required an unwieldy battery power source. So West, then in the second year of his PhD and an intern in Bell Labs' acoustics research department in Murray Hill, New Jersey, was asked to help tackle the problem.

A Dedication to Diversity

Follow this link to read more.

Edward E. David, former executive director of systems research at Bell Labs, was among those who had brought West on board. "We were convinced he would do well, but we had no idea that he would do as well as he did," says David, now a principal member of the Washington Advisory Group, a government and industry consulting agency. "He climbed the ladder, and he did it fairly rapidly and did it in great style. The work he did was very valuable."

West and fellow researcher Gerhard Sessler built an earphone that seemed to do the job using a solid dielectric condenser microphone, a dielectric being a substance that can prevent the flow of electricity and store electrostatic energy. The transducer, which used a polymer foil with a metal layer on top, was sensitive enough to create two quick pulses. But it still required a 500-volt battery. The microphones also lost sensitivity over time, and thus were not commercially produced. (West got the second big shock of his life when testing the earphone. "It stung and put a burn mark in my ear for a long time. I guess they are brown marks by now," he says, fingering his ear.)

Through further reading, West learned that to improve the lifetime of the microphone, he needed to reverse the polarity of the battery periodically to keep the charge from neutralizing and essentially fizzling out. "If I had to reverse the polarity of the battery, that meant that something internal was happening," he says.

Then, in the process of reversing the 500-volt battery, the leads to the microphone shorted out, and he and Sessler got a very loud signal. At that point, the microphone started transferring sound without juice from the battery. That meant the charge was continuous. But how?

The answer was a word West had never heard: electret.

"My life really changed at that point," he says. "Understanding this phenomenon became the single purpose in my life. I made an effort to understand everything I could about electrets." (In his pursuit, West dropped his doctoral studies. "And I never looked back," he says with a laugh. "I still haven't.")

He was ecstatic. "Discovery is the best high I've ever had," he says. "It's extremely euphoric. It's true that there is very little new in nature, but we can discover more and more about nature."

As West learned, the study of electrets actually had been around for a few hundred years. The first reference was in 1732, when English scientist Stephen Gray wrote a paper detailing the "perpetual attractive power" of various dielectrics, including waxes, rosins, and sulfur, according to Electrets, Topics in Applied Physics (1980), edited by Sessler, who is now at the University of Darmstadt in Germany. Gray generated what appeared to be static electricity with such materials as carnauba wax by heating the wax, then cooling the melts in iron ladles. Various scientists later tested the properties of electret substances; an electret was eventually defined as a material that retains its electric polarization after being subjected to a strong electric field.

By applying the 500 volts across the earphone over a period of time, the researchers had quasi-permanently charged, or polarized, the microphone, using the polymer Mylar. Yet the lifetime of the charge was only about six months.

The challenge was to come up with the right mix of plastics. West and Sessler went to materials science researchers at Bell Labs to talk about new polymers they were working on. Teflon had been developed more than a decade earlier by chemist Roy J. Plunkett, and its properties were still being tested. In 1964, West and Sessler published a paper that showed that Teflon retained a charge with minimal decay. "We found that, under careful conditions, we could inject a real charge into Teflon, and we extrapolated lifetimes in the hundreds of years," West says.

"The new and all important feature was the defined (and stable) charging of the dielectric to make it an electret," says Sessler via e-mail from Germany.

In a practical sense, the innovation allowed the development of microphones and other devices that could maintain sensitivity — and remain charged — over a long period of time. And there was no need for big, costly batteries. "The difference between the standard condenser and electret microphones was that we replaced the battery with a charge that is embedded in a thin polymer foil," West explains.

The microphones would be tiny — the size of a shirt button — and the patented technology would be applied to telephones and other devices beginning in 1968. At first, Bell Labs wasn't sure the new technology could beat the relatively low cost of the 56-cent carbon microphones of the day. But the foil electret microphone's high performance features — broad frequency, low noise, light weight, and high sensitivity — still cost less, at 10 cents per microphone today.

Electret technology has gone far beyond the telephone receiver into such areas as medicine and space technology. Among the applications West values most: the hearing aid. The microphones in early hearing aids were heavy, and the vibration sensitivity was high. "Before, it was impossible for people to leave their hearing aid on when they walked; the vibration was tremendous," West says. "Now people can wear hearing aids all the time."

One application of the electret microphone, however, pains him: military technology. During the Vietnam War, electret microphones were linked to FM transmitters, and the jungles seeded with the devices to track the movements of the Viet Cong, he says. Even today, the electret microphone is found in any modern war, especially in communication equipment such as radios or satellite phones.

Scientists, after all, rarely control how their discoveries are used. But they find ways to live with that. "One thing you can do is put it in a different context for yourself," says West. "The fact that people are able to communicate definitely could result in the saving of lives."

West, pictured here with graduate student Tyrone Hunter, has been named chair of Engineering's Diversity Council. West hopes to take a more active role in making sure lives are saved. And he believes that science and discovery will play the necessary dual roles.

In groundbreaking research in the late 1980s, West and colleagues at Cornell University and Bell Labs, including Busch-Vishniac, used an electret transducer with a wide frequency to take sophisticated blood pressure readings previously possible only with invasive pressure recordings (in which a catheter is usually inserted in the artery). The researchers also discovered a new algorithm that accurately described the systolic and diastolic points found in blood pressure readings.

The technology remains in the research stage, but the potential is tremendous. "What I hope is that further studies will allow us to be able to determine the performance of the cardiovascular system non-invasively, with a simple device that you could strap on," West says.

With more sensitive and accurate blood pressure cuffs, doctors could more easily evaluate a person's blood pressure cycle to detect, for example, artery-clogging plaque. As West notes, "The shape of the cardiac cycle is a function of the condition of the cardiovascular system."

Another motivator, he says, is the fact that heart disease and hypertension rates are higher among African Americans. "Heart conditions are basically the silent killers," says West, who hopes to work with researchers at the School of Medicine and elsewhere at Hopkins to develop such a device. "This is a dream of mine."

Yet, isn't that project in the very field — medicine — his father had wanted him to pursue?

West smiles. "It all comes back," he says. "It's all circular."

Samuel West, who died in the 1960s, never learned about his son's latest dream. "He knew that I was on my way," West says. If his exacting father had been around for the following decades, West says, "I think he would be very proud."

The researcher's return to the academy, however, will remain a quintessentially James West endeavor. As Sessler notes, West is a "dedicated, restless scientist, always on the run for new discoveries."

"I really want to be on the leading edge of research," West says. After four decades and countless accolades, he didn't want to sit back and be a consultant. "As a consultant, I'd be solving other people's problems," West says. "My problems are much more important."

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a frequent contributor to Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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