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Black History Maker in Technology: James Edward West

(February 14, 2019) - If you’ve recently made a call on your cell phone or listened to a great song, you should probably thank James Edward West. He developed the foil-electret microphone in 1962. It’s now used in almost all current microphones, including those found in most cell phones.

According to The HistoryMakers* website, West was born in 1931 in Farmville, Virginia. The electrical engineer became interested in technology at just 12 years old when he worked with his cousin to install wiring in homes. He later attended Hampton University where he planned to attend medical school; instead, he was drafted during the Korean War, where he was awarded the Purple Heart. After his time in the service, West transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia where he received a degree in physics in 1957.

He was hired at Bell Laboratories, a company considered a leader in technology at the time. Nine Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work done at Bell in physics and chemistry. During his time at Bell, West began to work on his Ph.D. While in his second year of the doctoral program, West and a coworker, Gerhard Sessler, developed a small microphone that did not require a battery.

That invention – called the electret microphone – replaced carbon microphones and “revolutionized communications technology.”** West’s new microphone was used in everything from hearing aids to space technology to cell phones. It’s still the building block of most communications technology used today.

West worked to help other African American engineers and physicists. He co-founded the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Labs in 1970. He retired in 2001 as a Bell Laboratories Fellow and continued his research at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, working to develop new technology that will someday replace his electret microphone.

West’s Other Accomplishments:

  • 1999: Fourth African American selected to join the National Inventors Hall of Fame

  • 2006: Awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology

  • Has 47 U.S. patents

  • Has more than 200 foreign patents

*About The HistoryMakers: By recording, preserving and sharing the life stories of thousands of African Americans, from President Barack Obama to the oldest living black cowboy, The HistoryMakers is a leader in helping to educate and enlighten millions worldwide through refashioning a more inclusive record of American history.


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African American History Makers in Technology

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