James Edward Maceo West is a U.S. inventor and professor who, in 1962, established the electret transducer technology that is currently used in 90 percent of contemporary microphones. An electret microphone is a type of electrostatic capacitor-based microphone that eliminates the need for a polarizing power supply. West was born in Prince Edward County, Va., Feb. 10, 1931. As a child, West had had an interest in technology and how it works.
“If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger,” he stated while describing his passion for science.
West enrolled in Temple University in Philadelphia in 1953 to study physics because his parents were concerned about him being an African-American scientist in the Jim Crow South. West received a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1957 and a full-time position as an acoustical scientist at Bell. In 1960, while working at Bell, West partnered with Gerhard M. Sessler to develop a compact microphone that was affordable and highly sensitive. By 1968, the electret microphone was in mass production and is now being used in the 21st century in products such as telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids. Both West and Sessler were initiated into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999. West has also worked with initiatives to help women and students of color to seek and pursue careers in science and technology.