In the early 1960s James West and his colleague Gerhard Sessler invented the electret microphone while they were working together at Bell Labs. The condenser mics that were being used at the time cost hundreds of dollars; an electret mic that would produce the same flat response across a wide frequency range cost pennies to make. Needless to say, the electret mic revolutionized the industry.
While the performance of electret mics has been improved since West and Sessler introduced them in 1964, the basic design hasn’t changed. That’s very uncommon in our world of rapid technological advance. Think about how phones have changed from the telephones used in the ’60s to today’s smartphones. One or another variant of West and Sessler’s electret mic is used in all of them. The same is true for the mics used to record the music we listen to, hearing aids, baby monitors and chat bots like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s forthcoming Home.
West didn’t just co-invent the electret mic, he is widely recognized as one of the all-time great inventors and electrical engineers. He has received many awards, holds numerous patents and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering. West values his scientific achievements but when asked by an interviewer what he would like his legacy to be, he focussed his attention on his unceasing and successful efforts to increase opportunity for minorities and women in scientific and technical fields.
West is an active proponent and a living example of why opening up education and opportunity to everyone benefits all of us. I’ve written a profile of him for Ars Technica. Give it a read, his story is remarkable.