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Looking back on his childhood days in Prince Edward County, Virginia, acoustical scientist James Edward West, says curiosity ruled his life. "If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger," remembers James with a laugh. That curiosity soon evolved into a keen interest in the mysteries of electricity, he says. "I became fascinated by electricity, just completely fascinated. I needed to learn everything I could about it."
By all accounts he learned well. James, who currently serves as research professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering & Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, is known worldwide as the co-inventor of the foil electret microphone. This is a type of condenser microphone upon which 90 percent of all microphones used today (such as in telephones, sound and music recording equipment, and hearing aids) are based. James developed the invention with his research partner Gerhard Sessler in 1962 while both were scientists at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hills, NJ.
In fact, James holds more than 60 U.S. patents and more than 200 foreign patents using polymer foil electrets in transducers during his 40-year career with Bell Laboratories, where he had worked as an acoustical scientist since graduating in 1957 from Temple University with a degree in Physics. He has also authored or contributed to more than 150 technical papers and several books on acoustics, solid-state physics and materials science.
Upon retiring from Bell in 2001, he joined Johns Hopkins University as a research professor in his current position, and the transition to academia has been much to his liking. "I discovered that Johns Hopkins is a lot like Bell Labs, where the doors are always open and we are free to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines," James says. "I like the fact that I'm not locked into one small niche here. I wanted to be in an environment that allowed 360 degrees of vision."
His research at Johns Hopkins includes efforts to improve teleconferencing technology by transmitting stereophonic sound over the Internet and new transducers. In addition, James has long been known for being a mentor to students, and for being active in initiating and participating in programs aimed at encouraging more minorities and women to enter the fields of science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM).
Because of his inventions and other contributions to acoustical science, he has received numerous awards and honors including: being awarded the prestigious U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation; the Acoustical Society of America's Gold Medal, named a Fellow of IEEE; receiving the Industrial Research Institute's Achievement Award, receiving the Inventor of the Year award from the State of New Jersey; being inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, and along with Gerhard Sessler receiving The Franklin Institute's Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering.
Looking back on his career, James now almost has to laugh on how disappointed his parents initially were when he told them he planned on studying physics instead of medicine. "In those days in the South," he says," the only professional jobs that seemed to be open to a black man were a teacher, a preacher, a doctor or a lawyer. My father introduced me to three black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry. The best jobs they could find were at the post office. My father said [in pursuing physics] I was taking the long road toward working at the post office."
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