The next time you hear a telephone ring, think of James West. West is a Southern-born scientist best known for his 1962 coinvention of the electret microphone, a device that converts sound to electrical signals.
A stunning 90 percent of microphones currently designed or produced -- ranging from telephones and hearing aids to portable recorders -- are based on West's work, the bulk of which occurred during his four decades at Bell Labs. During that time, West was granted more than 200 U.S. and foreign patents, and achieved dozens of professional honors, including inductions into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering. Upon his retirement in 2001, West joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.
It's been an impressive career arc for West, whose parents once cautioned against scientific pursuits. West's father pointed out three black men with doctorates in chemistry and physics working at the local post office and wondered whether his son's physics degree would simply become a winding road to a blue-collar job. But West was hired by Bell Labs right after graduating from Temple University. He'd interned there during his college summers [source: Homewood].