Famous Black Inventors

Dr. James E. West

Electret Microphone Inventor

Dr. James E. West

Ninety percent of microphones used today are based on the ingenuity of James Edward West, an African-American inventor born in 1931 in Prince Edwards County, VA. If you’ve ever talked on the telephone, you’ve probably used his invention.

Dr. James E. West and a colleague, Gerhard Sessler, developed the mic (officially known as the Electroacoustic Transducer Electret Microphone) while with Bell Laboratories, and they received a patent for it in 1962. The acoustical technologies employed became widely used for many reasons including high performance, acoustical accuracy and reliability. It is also small, lightweight and cost effective.

West started at Bell labs as an intern and joined them full-time in 1957 after graduating from Temple University. As the inventor of the microphone, James West has received numerous awards and honors including a Fellow of IEEE, Industrial Research Institute's 1998 Achievement Award, 1995 Inventor of the Year from the State of New Jersey and induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. James E. West holds 47 US patents and more than 200 foreign patents from his 40-year career with Bell Laboratories.

During his career, West also involved himself with programs designed to encourage minorities to take more of a role in the sciences. In the 1970's, he was a member of the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Labs that influenced management to fund the Summer Research Program (SRP) and Cooperate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) – programs that helped more than 500 non-white students graduate with degrees in science, engineering and mathematics.

James Edward West now works with Johns Hopkins University as a research professor.