The National Business League

Founded by Dr. Booker T. Washington – August 23, 1900


James West

James West

Electret microphone

Jim West has been at the forefront of acoustic science for nearly six decades. He’s also been advocate for diversifying STEM fields and opening pathways for all with a passion for innovation.

Born in 1931 in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia, West spent a considerable amount of time as a child tinkering. He was fascinated by how things worked, whether it be his grandfather’s pocket watch or old electronics he found in the trash. He also learned from his family the importance of being educated and active in his community. When he originally chose to major in physics, his father was concerned, as Black scientists often had trouble finding jobs in their field in the era of segregation. But West was determined to follow his passion.

Participating in a research program at Bell Laboratories set him on a path to success. In 1962, while at Bell Labs, West co-invented the foil-electret microphone and changed the field of acoustics forever. Electret microphones were significantly smaller than previous technologies, as well as being more sensitive and more durable. Today, electret microphones are used in products ranging from hearing aids to smartphones, and an estimated two billion are manufactured every year.

West is a named inventor on over 200 patents, and has helped even more young innovators pursue their dreams as a mentor and professor. He encourages his students to experiment, push boundaries, and bring their diverse perspectives to the lab. Describing his inventive ethos, West says, “You never know what exists beyond the horizon if you don’t go to the horizon, right?”