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Can You Hear Me Now? Thank Dr. James E. West

Dr. James E. West, inventor of the foil electret microphone.
By Sonavi Labs, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Dr. James E. West, inventor of the foil electret microphone.

If you've ever talked on the phone, listened to recorded music or known someone who benefited from a hearing aid, take a moment to thank Dr. James E. West.

West, along with his business partner Gerhard Sessler, invented the foil electret microphone in 1962. Their invention allowed microphones to work without needing large power supplies, making them both smaller and cheaper.

The technology shows up in just about anything that uses a microphone or speaker. It's one of the reasons your phone fits into your pocket, baby monitors pick up the slightest sound and hearing aids have gotten so small. Here's a quick description of how it works.

Foil-electret microphone patent.
Foil-electret microphone patent.

When West began his career, there weren't many Black scientists and inventors to look up to.

“At the time, the only opportunities for Black people [were] a preacher, teacher, lawyer or a doctor. If you weren't one of those, forget it,” West said in a 2016 Baltimore Sun interview.

Today, the National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee works to mentor students and to support programs that help women and underrepresented minorities get PhDs in science and technology fields.

“There's a fundamental problem in this country that many of us are very concerned about, and there is concrete proof that diversity in STEM and science is really important,” West said.

West, who has hundreds of patents to his name, is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. And at the age of 90, he's still inventing.

Take some time to look around and notice how many of the things you rely on have built-in microphones. Then remember James West and his contributions to the sciences.

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Josh Burnham is MTPR's digital editor. He works on the news team and as a content strategist managing the station's website, podcasts, email newsletters and social media.
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