Acoustical Society of America
Gold Medal Award - 2006

James E. West

James Edward West is a consummate acoustician, inventor and an extraordinary human being. In his lifetime of professional activities in acoustics, he has created a large number of distinctly unique microphones and loudspeakers and made important contributions in architectural acoustics and noise control. He has also mentored a number of current ASA members and dedicated enormous time and effort to encouraging students to consider careers in science.

Born on February 10, 1931 in rural Virginia, Jim West is the son of Matilda and Samuel West. Matilda West was a school teacher and during World War II was employed at Langley Air Force Base working with wind tunnel data until she lost her job because she was a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group that Senator Joseph McCarthy had labeled as communist. Samuel West worked, at various points, as a funeral home owner, B & O Railroad porter, and insurance salesman.

Jim's interest in electrical phenomena began at an early age when he found an old radio and plugged it in to see if it still worked. His lab skills not yet perfectly honed, the resulting electrical shock immobilized him until his brother knocked him over. From that moment he was hooked. In the 1940s Jim's cousin, Edward B. Allen, a school teacher, worked part time wiring homes and Jim, aged 12, went to work for him crawling under houses and carrying the wire from one place to another. Thus began his lifelong habit of tinkering and seeking to understand how things work—in his own words, "A screwdriver and pliers were very dangerous. Anything that had screws in it, I could open up."

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

Jim's contributions to acoustics largely define the advances in transduction in the last 50 years. He, along with Gerhard Sessler, invented the modern electret microphone found in virtually all telephones and voice recorders, and now produced worldwide at a rate well in excess of 2 billion units annually. He also was involved in the production of adaptive close-talking microphones, first- and second-order differential microphones, blood pressure monitoring transducers, wideband telephone receivers, and microphone arrays of various sorts. For his work on electroacoustic devices, he has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering and honored with too many awards to name. Jim's name is on 47 US and over 200 foreign patents. He has authored over 100 scientific articles.

In addition to his work on transducers, Jim has made important contributions to architectural acoustics. He defined the "seat effect" in a 1964 paper and was the first to publish the importance of early reflection arrivals in the subjective quality assessment of concert halls (in an ASA abstract). Jim was also instrumental in the measurement of the performance of a number of halls, including Philharmonic Hall.

More recently, Jim has focused his attention on new piezoelectric materials, new multi-channel tele-collaboration techniques, and noise control in hospitals. The work on piezoelectric material uses previously unexploited mechanisms for generating dipole moments in the design of polymer composites in which the mechanical performance is determined by one polymer and the electroacoustic coupling by a second. This ability to separately control mechanical and electrical performance will make it possible to custom design piezoelectric materials with specified performance measures. Multi-channel tele-collaboration is a joint project with Fred Juang at Georgia Institute of Technology that aims at making more effective use of stereo hearing in tele-collaboration venues. In the hospital noise area, Jim has worked to characterize the noise at Johns Hopkins Hospital and to demonstrate noise interventions that will work long term. This work has generated an enormous positive response from medical caregivers and the lay public.

Jim has also been very active in the Acoustical Society of America. He regularly delivers talks at our biennial meetings and participates in the engineering acoustics, noise, and architectural acoustics technical committee meetings. He has been a member of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) since 1962 and has served as chair and member of many committees and in several elected positions including Member of the Executive Council (1989-92), President-Elect (1997-98) and President (1998-99). Jim was instrumental in the establishment of the Society's minority fellowship and the educational programs for local high-school students that are conducted at Society meetings. During his tenure as President of the Society, the ASA held its first meeting outside of North America jointly with the European Acoustics Association. Jim worked to further broaden our reach by fostering a lasting relationship with South American and Mexican acousticians, culminating in the joint meeting in Cancun for which he served as Cochair. The Acoustical Society is clearly core to Jim's administrative work, and his effectiveness in this as in other arenas is defined by his focus on building personal relationships.

To define Jim by his copious and important work in acoustics is to miss his most important aspect–his warmth and generosity of spirit. As anyone who has interacted with Jim already knows, he enjoys forging deep relationships with people and encouraging their success. Jim is at his best when interacting with students at all levels and helping them understand how to learn by trying and how to challenge themselves. He was one of the founders of the AT&T Corporate Research Fellowship Program, the most significant corporate funding program for minority PhD students in the world. He is also one of the premier advisors for a new program in which high school junior and senior women spend a term working in a lab at the Johns Hopkins University campus. This program, called Wise Women, is now serving as a model for academic institutions across the country.

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

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