Black engineers have made massive contributions to sound and music technology, overcoming systemic discrimination. And yet, they’re too often unsung, even today. One anyone in sound should know is James West, who, as part of a prolific career, revolutionized recording with the electret microphone in research with Gerhard Sessler at Bell Labs.

James West was born in 1931 in deeply racist rural Virginia; his grandmother had been a slave. His curiosity was insatiable and – sometimes destructive. As Ars Technica recounts, he took apart his grandfather’s watch but failed to put it back together again, and managed to give himself an electric shock while connecting a radio. He had to overcome his own parents’ resistance to him pursuing a career in science. Seeing the setbacks of Black chemists, they refused to pay his college tuition. But West struck out on his own, attended Temple University, and caught an ad for an internship at Bell Labs.

The rest is history: the groundwork for the electret condenser, the design that would become the most ubiquitous in the world, was laid in that internship, and it started with an accident. The main issue with making a microphone compact is how to deal with power. And the breakthrough came from an experiment West was performing during that internship.

I don’t want to entirely contribute to the “lone innovator” model of understanding media history. Even with his massive portfolio of patents, it’s the way West worked collaboratively that is most impressive – sometimes involve extraordinary luck. (This is also the key to why fighting for inclusion ultimately benefits everyone: it effectively makes all of us smarter. Or to put it another way, systemic discrimination makes us all dumber.)

And the story of the breakthrough that led to the development of a working electret mic is truly incredible. Here it is recounted in a research article on its history. (That article is terrific and worth digesting in full). It all began as Jim tried to make headphone transducers using Mylar membranes (what was called a Sell transducer), and ran into an issue – transducer sensitivity would fall off in just a few months:

Patent image, electret condensor mic.

This “problem” became an opportunity, as is so common in scientific breakthroughs. By 1959 Gerhard Sessler had joined Bell Labs and Jim had returned from the university to investigate the sensitivity problem with the headphone transducer on which he had worked as an intern. In another of
those strange coincidences that seems to play important roles in scientific history, Sessler had also worked with the Sell transducer. Gerhard used the reciprocal Sell transducer in his Ph.D. work on sound propagation and absorption of gasses at high and low pressures and temperatures. When Jim began experimenting with the problem transducer, he accidentally (but fortuitously) left the DC bias to the Sell receiver disconnected. To his surprise, the receiver started playing loudly again with its original sensitivity—it had been restored by removing the bias voltage! Kuhl, Schodder, and Schroeder had observed this behavior as well but did not pursue this phenomenon in their research. By this time Sessler and West were on the trail and realized the sensitivity problem was due to the fact that the Mylar® polymer had become slowly charge-compensated. Charge compensation was causing the slow loss of sensitivity in the Sell transducer. With this understanding of the problem they went to the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics12 that was an encyclopedia of materials at the time, and found that Teflon® had the highest volume resistivity of any material they could find (greater than 1018 ohm-cm). With this discovery, they managed to procure some sheets of Teflon®
from Dupont, the creator of Teflon®. They metalized the Teflon® with a thin layer of aluminum and created the modern electret microphone by tensioning a charged Teflon® membrane over a metalized backplate.

Elko, Gary W. and K.P. Harney. “A History of Consumer Microphones: The Electret Condenser Microphone Meets Micro-Electro-Mechanical-Systems.” Acoustics Today 5 (2009): 4. [PDF]

The electret concept dates back to 1892, but it was the first time someone created a working mic.

Here’s a great explanation – and as this video producer notes, part of the story here is a Black American collaboration with a German immigrant to the USA. Take note on both sides – especially as both Germany and the USA push anti-immigrant, anti-Black policies.

Over 90% of the microphones in production annually use this approach. West has done plenty more – measuring the acoustics of NYC’s Philharmonic Hall. He’s also applied his skill with sound to a range of research, from dealing with noise levels in hospitals to creating a device to detect pneumonia. He has 250 patents to his name.

There are some great interviews with West, too. Electret condensers get the most attention, but his work on sound is profound – as is the connection between audio technology and health care.

(That second video has four parts – see part II (which hits the electret condenser), III, and IV)

West has gladly gotten more recognition in recent years, particularly in science circles, but I notice he’s still frequently left out of the history of sound. (And in general, we skip a lot of the history of the technologies we use.) That’s a loss, and it’s time to work to correct it.

He closes that fourth interview with an impassioned plea for investing in knowledge, science, and technology, and its ability to preserve the world – plus the lack of inclusion of women and minorities.

“We are in a very delicate position worldwide, and no matter how you look at it – from global warming to the outright stupidity of people – are threats to the survival of the planet. Solutions to these problems are very definitely embedded in knowledge, in what we can learn, in what we can do as human beings to preserve this planet.”

That takes a turn, though, in that he says what makes this worth doing is that science is fun. And if that doesn’t describe an overlap with music technology, nothing does.


These Three Overlooked Black Inventors Shaped Our Lives (also featuring sugar production and the modern ironing board) [Scientific American]

At 87, this Baltimore inventor has 250 patents to his name — and he’s still at it [The Washington Post]

Listen up: James West forever changed the way we hear the world [Ars Technica]

Photo at top: Sonavi Labs via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).