James E. West

Acoustical Society of America

Gold Medal Award


James E. West

James Edward West is a consummate acoustician, inventor and an extraordinary humanbeing. In his lifetime of professional activities in acoustics, hehas created a large number of distinctly unique microphones andloudspeakers and made important contributions in architectural acoustics and noisecontrol. He has also mentored a number of current ASAmembers and dedicated enormous time and effort to encouraging studentsto consider careers in science.

Born on February 10, 1931 inrural Virginia, Jim West is the son of Matilda andSamuel West. Matilda West was a school teacher and duringWorld War II was employed at Langley Air Force Baseworking with wind tunnel data until she lost her jobbecause she was a leader in the National Association forthe Advancement of Colored People, a group that Senator JosephMcCarthy had labeled as communist. Samuel West worked, at variouspoints, as a funeral home owner, B & O Railroadporter, and insurance salesman.

Jim's interest in electrical phenomena began atan early age when he found an old radio andplugged it in to see if it still worked. Hislab skills not yet perfectly honed, the resulting electrical shockimmobilized him until his brother knocked him over. From thatmoment he was hooked. In the 1940s Jim's cousin, EdwardB. Allen, a school teacher, worked part time wiring homesand Jim, aged 12, went to work for him crawlingunder houses and carrying the wire from one place toanother. Thus began his lifelong habit of tinkering and seekingto understand how things work—in his own words, "A screwdriverand pliers were very dangerous. Anything that had screws init, I could open up."

After graduating from high school, Jimenrolled at Hampton University as a premedical student—honoring the desireof his parents that he pursue one of the careersopen to black people of that time (lawyer, doctor, teacher,and preacher). But before completing his degree, Jim was draftedto serve in the Korean War, where he was awardeda Purple Heart. Upon returning to college Jim switched toTemple University and solid-state physics.

Jim's contributions to acoustics largely definethe advances in transduction in the last 50 years. He,along with Gerhard Sessler, invented the modern electret microphone foundin virtually all telephones and voice recorders, and now producedworldwide at a rate well in excess of 2 billionunits annually. He also was involved in the production ofadaptive close-talking microphones, first- and second-order differential microphones, blood pressuremonitoring transducers, wideband telephone receivers, and microphone arrays of varioussorts. For his work on electroacoustic devices, he has beeninducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and theNational Academy of Engineering and honored with too many awardsto name. Jim's name is on 47 US and over200 foreign patents. He has authored over 100 scientific articles.

Inaddition to his work on transducers, Jim has made importantcontributions to architectural acoustics. He defined the "seat effect" ina 1964 paper and was the first to publish theimportance of early reflection arrivals in the subjective quality assessmentof concert halls (in an ASA abstract). Jim was alsoinstrumental in the measurement of the performance of a numberof halls, including Philharmonic Hall.

More recently, Jim has focused hisattention on new piezoelectric materials, new multi-channel tele-collaboration techniques, andnoise control in hospitals. The work on piezoelectric material usespreviously unexploited mechanisms for generating dipole moments in the designof polymer composites in which the mechanical performance is determinedby one polymer and the electroacoustic coupling by a second.This ability to separately control mechanical and electrical performance willmake it possible to custom design piezoelectric materials with specifiedperformance measures. Multi-channel tele-collaboration is a joint project with FredJuang at Georgia Institute of Technology that aims at makingmore effective use of stereo hearing in tele-collaboration venues. Inthe hospital noise area, Jim has worked to characterize thenoise at Johns Hopkins Hospital and to demonstrate noise interventionsthat will work long term. This work has generated anenormous positive response from medical caregivers and the lay public.

Jimhas also been very active in the Acoustical Society ofAmerica. He regularly delivers talks at our biennial meetings andparticipates in the engineering acoustics, noise, and architectural acoustics technicalcommittee meetings. He has been a member of the AcousticalSociety of America (ASA) since 1962 and has served aschair and member of many committees and in several electedpositions including Member of the Executive Council (1989-92), President-Elect (1997-98)and President (1998-99). Jim was instrumental in the establishment ofthe Society's minority fellowship and the educational programs for localhigh-school students that are conducted at Society meetings. During histenure as President of the Society, the ASA held itsfirst meeting outside of North America jointly with the EuropeanAcoustics Association. Jim worked to further broaden our reach byfostering a lasting relationship with South American and Mexican acousticians,culminating in the joint meeting in Cancun for which heserved as Cochair. The Acoustical Society is clearly core toJim's administrative work, and his effectiveness in this as inother arenas is defined by his focus on building personalrelationships.

To define Jim by his copious and important work inacoustics is to miss his most important aspect–his warmth andgenerosity of spirit. As anyone who has interacted with Jimalready knows, he enjoys forging deep relationships with people andencouraging their success. Jim is at his best when interactingwith students at all levels and helping them understand howto learn by trying and how to challenge themselves. Hewas one of the founders of the AT&T Corporate ResearchFellowship Program, the most significant corporate funding program for minorityPhD students in the world. He is also one ofthe premier advisors for a new program in which highschool junior and senior women spend a term working ina lab at the Johns Hopkins University campus. This program,called Wise Women, is now serving as a model foracademic institutions across the country.

James Edward West has been asterling colleague, collaborator, friend, and mentor to many of us. He is also a loving spouse to Marlene and afather to four children.

Ilene J. Busch-Vishniac
Gary W. Elko
Gerhard M. Sessler