Jim West’s marvellous microphone

James West

Source: Photograph © Ellington West; Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Folio Art

Ainissa Ramirez highlights an African American scientist who created one of the most used technologies of our modern age, but whose name is barely known by the general public

When college student Jim West began his summer internship at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in the 1950s, he stumbled across a scientific phenomenon that would revolutionise how the world communicates. With it, he created the microphone that now sits inside every telephone and cellphone. Yet most people don’t know who he is.

West turned a scientific amusement – electret materials – into something essential. He changed the world, touching every person on the planet within earshot of his invention.