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James West

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Information about James West

Profile image of James West

Profession

Category:
ScienceMakers
Occupation(s):
Electrical Engineer

Favorites

Favorite Color:
None
Favorite Food:
All Food
Favorite Time of Year:
Fall, Spring
Favorite Vacation Spot:
Anywhere Near Water, Mountains
Favorite Quote:
None

Birthplace

Born:
2/10/1931
Birth Location:
Farmville, Virginia

Profession

Category:
ScienceMakers
Occupation(s):
Electrical Engineer

Favorites

Favorite Color:
None
Favorite Food:
All Food
Favorite Time of Year:
Fall, Spring
Favorite Vacation Spot:
Anywhere Near Water, Mountains
Favorite Quote:
None

Birthplace

Born:
2/10/1931
Birth Location:
Farmville
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Biography

Electrical engineer James Edward West was born on February 10, 1931 in Farmville, Virginia to Samuel Edward and Matilda West. At various points, his father worked as a funeral home owner, an insurance salesman, and as a porter on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His mother was a school teacher and worked at Langley Air Force Base during World War II, later losing her job because of her involvement in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. West has one brother, Nathaniel. West’s interest in electricity resulted from his work with his cousin to put electrical wiring into homes in rural Virginia when he was twelve years old. After graduating from George P. Phoenix High School, West went on to attend Hampton University in Virginia with plans of attending medical school. Nevertheless, West was drafted and sent to serve in the Korean War, where he was awarded a Purple Heart for his outstanding military service. West later became a pacifist and transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia. He decided to change his concentration and went on to receive his degree in physics in 1957.

West was hired at Bell Laboratories, where he began his studies to obtain his Ph.D. degree. During the second year of his doctorate program, West and a colleague, Gerhard Sessler, constructed a small microphone that did not require the use of a battery. This electret microphone replaced the carbon microphone and revolutionized communications technology. West’s invention was used in such devices as hearing aids and space technology. Even in 2011, 90% of microphone technology had its foundation in West’s development of the electret microphone. In addition to his research, West co-founded the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Labs in 1970. West retired from Lucent Technologies as a Bell Laboratories Fellow in 2001. He has continued to do research, joining the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in 2002. His research interests include, among other things, finding new technology that will replace the electret microphone.

West’s inventions and contributions in electrical engineering have garnered him a great deal of recognition. In 1999, West was the fourth African American selected to join the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the invention of the electret microphone. He also received the U.S. National Medal of Technology in 2006. He has forty-seven U.S. patents, over 200 foreign patents, and has written over a hundred academic papers. West and his wife Marlene have four adult children, Melanie, Laurie, James and Ellington.

James E. West was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 10, 2012.

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  • Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of James West's interview
  • Tape: 1 Story: 2 - James West lists his favorites
  • Tape: 1 Story: 3 - James West describes his mother's family background
  • Tape: 1 Story: 4 - James West talks about his grandparents
  • Tape: 1 Story: 5 - James West talks about his mother's education
  • Tape: 1 Story: 6 - James West describes his father's family background
  • Tape: 1 Story: 7 - James West talks about his father's career
  • Tape: 1 Story: 8 - James West talks about his parents
  • Tape: 1 Story: 9 - James West describes his earliest childhood memories
  • Tape: 2 Story: 1 - James West talks about his growing up and his grandmother's influence on him
  • Tape: 2 Story: 2 - James West describes the sights, sounds and smells of his growing up
  • Tape: 2 Story: 3 - James West talks about how Dr. Baker's death made him question religion
  • Tape: 2 Story: 4 - James West talks about his early education and his interest in math and science
  • Tape: 2 Story: 5 - James West remembers being electrocuted at eight years old
  • Tape: 2 Story: 6 - James West talks about his childhood mentors and their influence on his life
  • Tape: 3 Story: 1 - James West talks about the politics regarding education in Prince Edward County, Virginia
  • Tape: 3 Story: 2 - James West talks about the people and the organizations involved in Civil Rights Movement
  • Tape: 3 Story: 3 - James West talks about his learning process and his work with the National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • Tape: 3 Story: 4 - James West talks about his high school experience, his politics, and his teaching philosophy
  • Tape: 4 Story: 1 - James West talks about healthcare and immigration policies and his interest in problem-solving
  • Tape: 4 Story: 2 - James West talks about being drafted into the U.S. Army
  • Tape: 4 Story: 3 - James West talks about his experience in the U.S. Army
  • Tape: 4 Story: 4 - James West talks about his experience at Temple University
  • Tape: 4 Story: 5 - James West talks about his experience interning at Bell Laboratories, part 1
  • Tape: 4 Story: 6 - James West talks about his experience interning at Bell Laboratories, part 2
  • Tape: 5 Story: 1 - James West talks about his experience at Bell Laboratories
  • Tape: 5 Story: 2 - James West talks about his friend, Gerhard Sessler
  • Tape: 5 Story: 3 - James West talks about Bell Labs' management and fringe political groups in the U.S.
  • Tape: 5 Story: 4 - James West talks about the electret microphone- part 1
  • Tape: 5 Story: 5 - James West talks about the electret microphone- part 2
  • Tape: 5 Story: 6 - James West talks about the applications for the electret microphone
  • Tape: 6 Story: 1 - James West talks about Dr. William Lincoln Hawkins and the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE)
  • Tape: 6 Story: 2 - James West talks about Dr. William Lincoln Hawkins and the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE)- part 2
  • Tape: 6 Story: 3 - James West talks about Arno Penzias and his leadership at Bell Labs
  • Tape: 6 Story: 4 - James West talks about the Association of Black Laboratory Employees
  • Tape: 6 Story: 5 - James West talks about his professional activities
  • Tape: 6 Story: 6 - James West talks about his professional awards and his lack of his interest in having a management role
  • Tape: 7 Story: 1 - James West talks about his professional awards and honors
  • Tape: 7 Story: 2 - James West talks about his significant research at Bell Labs
  • Tape: 7 Story: 3 - James West talks about his decision to join the faculty at Johns Hopkins University
  • Tape: 7 Story: 4 - James West talks about his research on hospital noise
  • Tape: 7 Story: 5 - James West talks about his multi-media project at Northwestern University
  • Tape: 7 Story: 6 - James West talks about his awards, honors, and his lack of interest in retirement
  • Tape: 7 Story: 7 - James West reflects upon his legacy
  • Tape: 7 Story: 8 - James West talks about the importance of diversity and the participation of minorities in technological development
  • Tape: 7 Story: 9 - James West reflects on his life choices
  • Tape: 7 Story: 10 - James West talks about his hopes and concerns for the Black community
  • Tape: 8 Story: 1 - James West talks about his family
  • Tape: 8 Story: 2 - James West talks about how he would like to be remembered