Photo of James Edward Maceo West

James Edward Maceo West

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Communications

For co-inventing the foil electret microphone in 1962. Ninety percent of the two billion microphones produced annually and used in everyday items such as telephones, hearing aids, camcorders, and multimedia computers employ electret technology.

James West on his childhood tendency toward tinkering

James Edward Maceo West’s career had a shocking start. At eight years old, he was electrocuted while plugging a broken radio into a ceiling outlet while standing on the brass footboard of his bed. But the surge didn’t scare him; instead, it pushed him to learn more about electricity.

Decades later, West developed the first inexpensive, highly sensitive, compact microphone, which soon became a mass produced industry standard. Today, 90 percent of all contemporary microphones—like the ones found in telephones, tape recorders, baby monitors and hearing aids—use his technology.

West, a renowned acoustical scientist, began his career at Bell Laboratories after earning a degree in physics from Temple University in 1957. He remained with that company for 40 years, specializing in electro-acoustics, physical and architectural acoustics, as well as securing more than 250 patents, before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins University as a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

In addition to his scientific contributions, West has also served as an advocate for greater diversity in STEM fields. While at Bell, for example, West co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees, which addressed the placement and promotional concerns of black employees.

By Sydni Dunn