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The Space Between Need, Conceive, & Invention (a special Black History note) February 14, 2023

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Peace and ease to all during this “Season of Non-violence” and all other seasons!

This is a special post for February 10th. The word for this date is groundedness. Click here if you are interested in other events and people I’ve covered on this date.

“‘Come , now,’ I said, ‘let’s make a city in speech from the beginning. Our need, as it seems, will make it.’”

– quoted from the exchange between Socrates and Adeimantus in 2.XI of The Republic of Plato, translated and with an interpretative essay by Allan Bloom, 1968 (with a new introduction by Adam Kirsch)

(1894 translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Then, I said, let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.”)

If we consider the very beginning of something (or someone) as Socrates and the others do in Plato’s Republic, we find that everything (and everyone) begins as a flicker of something out in the ether. We can call that flicker an idea, for lack of a better word, or we can call it a need – the word Plato uses. Either way, that flicker of something (or someone) is out in the either and then it gets grounded and rooted into something (or someone) – or it sets off a spark – and then from that conception there is creation and then being/existing in reality as we know it. And, even though we can follow that train of thought, there are a lot of things we use on a regular basis that we don’t think about in this way.

We don’t often think about the initial idea/need – unless our need is sudden and acute. Neither do we think very often about the space between that initial idea/need and all the steps that brought it into reality – which means, we don’t think about the people we have to thank for things we use everyday. But, let’s say we were going to think about the inventor of something – like, let’s say, we wanted to thank the person or people responsible for the microphones (and speakerphones) in our phones and other electronic devices. Let’s say, we wanted to thank the person or people responsible for the technology inside hearing aids, audio recording devices, video recorders, baby monitors, computers, and cell phones.

Be honest. If you were to imagine such a person (or people), what’s the first idea of a person that comes to mind?

Be honest.

Would you be surprised that one of their parents worked for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Langley Research Center? Probably not. Would you guess that they were still in college when they started inventing things that would change the world? Probably not.  But, if you weren’t think of this person in the context of this special post, would you imagine someone whose grandparents were enslaved and who was born in a house because the local hospitals wouldn’t admit their mother (that NASA employee)? Possibly not. And yet…

“James’ approach to learning sounds very familiar: ‘If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger. I had this need to know what was inside.’”

– quoted from “James West Began 40 Years at Bell Labs with World-Changing Microphone Tech” by Mike Szczys (posted at hackaday.com on February 17, 2021)

Let’s start with Matilda Omega Miller West. She worked at Langley Air Force Base as a teacher and also as one of the NASA (human) computers that we now recognize as “Hidden Figures.” In fact, she was distantly related to Dorothy Vaughn, who became the first African American woman to receive a promotion and supervise a group of staff at the center when she was named acting supervisor of the West Area Computers in 1949. Mrs. West was also an active and prominent member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as at least one other organization that the government viewed with suspicion. When she lost her job at NASA because of her political activism, she started teaching at a Native American reservation in Pennsylvania. She was married to Samuel Edward West, who held a variety of jobs, including owning a funeral home owner, working as an insurance salesman, and as a Pullman porter on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Wests had two children (James and Nathaniel); however, as they had to travel in order to work, their two sons were left in the care of Matilda West’s mother – who had formerly been enslaved.

The oldest of the West children, James Edward Maceo West, was born February 10, 1931, in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. He was a super curious kid, who wanted to understand how things worked. At an early age, he was taking things a part and poking around in things. He once took apart his grandfather’s pocket watch and discovered it had 107 parts, but then couldn’t put it back together again. Another time, he found a broken radio in the trash and set out to fix it. When he thought he was successful, he needed to plug it in; so, he climbed up on a bed, held onto the brass headboard, and plugged into a light socket. Needless to say, he shocked himself and probably would have died if his brother Nathaniel hadn’t knocked him off the bed. The family would have probably loved it, on some level, if either of those incidents had discouraged young James West from tinkering. Since, however, he was not deterred, they had to find other ways to channel his energy and inquisitive nature and he ended up working with a cousin who wired electricity for houses in rural Virginia.

“Describing the experience later, he said that when things happen that he doesn’t understand ‘… I have to figure them out. I have to learn. And that’s essentially what led to some of the discoveries that I made, you know, the curiosity. Well, why does nature behave in that way? You know, what are the compelling parameters around the way nature behaves? And how can I better understand the physical principles that I’m dealing with? You know, it’s still a big part of my life.’”

– quoted from the Biz & IT section of Ars Technica, in an article entitled “Listen up: James West forever changed the way we hear the world – Now in his 80s, the legendary inventor still pursues research and fights for education.” by Kevin Murnane (dated 5/8/2016)

Growing up in Farmville, in the twentieth century, was challenging for African Americans. It was a time when education and job opportunities were subpar in areas like Virginia. There was an all-white school across the street from where he grew up. There was a an all-Black school (Robert Russa Moton High School) on the other side of town; but, that school lacked some very important resources, including: a gym, a cafeteria, indoor bathrooms, and blackboards. There were no science labs and a lack of classrooms, in general, meant that some classes were held inside of a school bus. On top of all that, R. R. Moton High School received the discarded books from the all-white school; so, they were dog-eared and out-of-date.

James West was scheduled to start high school long before 16-year old Barbara Rose Johns Powell led a student strike in April 1951, and long before Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Docket number: Civ. A. No. 1333; Case citation: 103 F. Supp. 337 (1952)) was rolled into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).  Since the Wests valued education, and had the means to do so, they decided to send their son to Phenix High School in Hampton, Virginia. Phenix HS, established the same year James West was born, was an all-Black feeder school for Hampton Institute (now known as Hampton University), one of the private Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs), and it trained students to be teachers, even requiring them to be student teachers. The Wests expected their son to to follow a plan that included pre-med at Hampton, medical school, and a job with an uncle who had built a clinic and started a practice – and he did follow the plan, for a while, but he was still compelled to tinker.

“In life, racism was my biggest obstacle. I always felt like if I was white, would I have had a better life? I don’t know because I really do have fun. But I had to pay attention to things that more directly affected me than others. For example, I got an email from a colleague a few days ago that said basically I wish I hadn’t accused you of conspiracy theory as much as I did. We used to have lunch together and talk about the disparities between the races, and now he finally understood why I was so upset by getting continuously stopped by police on my way to work through an all-white community.

Now more people understand why the fear is there.”

– quoted from the Acoustics Today interview conducted by Hilary Kates Varghese, entitled “Being a Black Scholar, James West as told to Hilary Kates Varghese” (Winter 2020, Volume 16, Issue 4) 

In high school, James West and a friend built their own telephone system. When he graduated from high school, he followed the plan, but he couldn’t get into it; so, he made plans to transfer to Wilberforce University (another HBCU) in Wilberforce, Ohio. His parents tried to dissuade him – even introducing him to two Black PhDs who couldn’t find jobs because of their race. James West, however, had that will and determination – that compulsion – that can only be considered a calling. He would not be moved off the course he had set for himself. But then, he was drafted by the United States Army during the Korean War.

After being wounded in combat, and receiving two Purple Hearts, James West went back to school. This time he decided to study Physics at Temple University, an integrated school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were, however, some race-related challenges. Temple was founded around the idea of  study groups, but the study groups in his department kept rejecting him because of his race. Taking a page from women in his family (like his mother and Dorothy Vaughn), James West decided to show the white students what he could do – what his mind could do. Being able to solve complex equations earned him invitations to the very groups that had rejected him. Suspecting that he might face similar issues on the job front, he applied to pretty much every internship he could find. In 1957, he started his first summer internship at Bell Telephone Laboratories (now Nokia Bell Labs) and felt like it could be his professional home.

“I found Bell Labs to be among the few places that I felt as a Black male, that I would have a comfortable and prosperous career. I measured and monitored this is terms of the number of underrepresented minorities and women that I saw in roles that I might eventually want to be a part of.”

– quoted from the Acoustics Today interview conducted by Hilary Kates Varghese, entitled “Being a Black Scholar, James West as told to Hilary Kates Varghese” (Winter 2020, Volume 16, Issue 4)

As part of his internship, James West started working in the Acoustic Research department where he studying interaural time delay (ITD), which is the time lapse between when each ear detects a sound and is a major part of how humans locate the source of a sound. The lab was re-purposing microphone technology, but the results were limiting their research – the system produced frequencies so low that very few people could hear the full spectrum of frequencies. The future Dr. West, still in college, dug up a German research paper (on solid dielectric elements) and completely revamped the test equipment. His new system produced more sound; thereby, creating better testing conditions. The professional scientists were impressed and James West was energized when he went back to school. Two or three months later, there was a problem: the intern’s system had stopped working. Since none of the professionals had done the research to understand the system, they sent the young Temple student a ticket back to Murray Hill, New Jersey.

James West could fix the problem, but he couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again. In order to make that guarantee, he had to understand the technology better. That was his need; that is what compelled him to make an even better sound system. As he researched electrets (basically, electricity magnets), he started working with Gerhard Sessler, a scientist originally from Germany. Dr. Sessler was exactly five days younger than James West, but he his education had not been interrupted by war. He studied physics at the Universities of Freiburg and Munich (where he earned his diploma in 1957); earned his PhD (from the University of Göttingen in 1959; and then moved to the United States to work at Bell Labs. In 1962, James West and Gerhard Sessler invented the electroacoustic transducer, the technology for the foil electret microphone.

US Patent No. 3118022 would be the first of over 100 (US and international) patents for Gerhard Sessler and over 450 (US and international) patents for James West. It would revolutionize the way people hear sound via electronic equipment and it would change James West’s life. To this day, 90% of all devices that relay sound do so using this technology. As for it’s American co-inventor, he would never go back to Temple (as a student). James West would continue working at Bell Labs, moving over to Lucent Technology, Inc. after it was created through a 1996 divestiture of the former AT&T Technologies business unit of AT&T Corporation (which included Western Electric and Bell Labs). Throughout his career, his work has been published in journals and books.

After over 40 years of service, James West retired and was recognized as a Bell Laboratories Fellow. That same year, in 2001, he started teaching at Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, where he is currently a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His research at Johns Hopkins has included studying the acoustics of hospitals in order to find noise-cancelling solutions and developing technology for a smart stethoscope that cancels out background noise and can detect things like pneumonia and lung cancer. One of his daughters*, Ellington West, is CEO of the company that would take that digital stethoscope to market.

“I turned down the lower level management opportunities because I did not see a clear ladder of progress in management as a Black male. I remained in the lab and retired in 2001 at the highest rank of non-management, a Bell Labs Fellow. ”

– quoted from the Acoustics Today interview conducted by Hilary Kates Varghese, entitled “Being a Black Scholar, James West as told to Hilary Kates Varghese” (Winter 2020, Volume 16, Issue 4)

As I already mentioned, James West has always been curious and he was fortunate to have parents and extended family that fostered his ingenuity – even when they thought he was applying it in the wrong way (and they withdrew financial support). But, he proved himself to his parents, just as he proved himself to the Temple study groups and to the world. He was named New Jersey’s Inventor of the Year in 1995; elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1998; inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999; received an honorary doctorate from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in 2007; and received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering (along with Gerhard Sessler) in 2010.

Throughout his career, Dr. James West has supported opportunities for others to follow in his footsteps and to stand on his shoulders: to fill needs and discover opportunities regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and/or perceived ability. He is the co-founder of Bell’s Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE); helped create and develop the Corporate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) for graduate students pursuing terminal degrees in the sciences and the Summer Research Program (SRP); and has served on the board of directors of the Ingenuity Project, “a comprehensive, advanced math and science instructional [non-profit] program for Baltimore City students in grades 6-12.”

“‘My father is my hero, role model, my greatest inspiration,’ [Ellington] West, 34, once told an interviewer.”

– quoted from the Citybiz+ article entitled “Sonavi Lab’s CEO Ellington West: Black Entrepreneur On A Mission To Fight Bias And Save Lives” (dated August 10, 2022)

Practice Notes: As I write this post, I am listening to jazz (beginning with Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert) – music I always associate with being fearless, engaging in fearless play, and improvising. A practice dedicated to James West would be a practice where we delve into how things work and how things don’t work (or don’t work well). Then, we would be fearless and play – remembering the rules of improv: not breaking the flow, saying “yes and,” knowing the rules in order to break the rules, and (from the musical side) playing what’s not there. This would be a vinyāsa krama practice, with “things placed in a special way” “for a step-by-step progression” towards a peak pose (possibly Naṭarājāsana, “Dancer Pose.” The primary goals here would be to have fund and to listen to your mind-body.

*NOTE: James West and his wife Marlene have four adult children: Melanie, Laurie, James and Ellington. I would normally include more information, but could not find accurate information about when/how they met and what the other West children do for a living. He does talk about his family and his life choices in the interview conducted by The HistoryMakers, but I do not have access to those interviews. Many of the above quotes (except where indicated) are originally from The HistoryMakers® Video Oral History Interview with James West, February 13, 2013. The HistoryMakers® African American Video Oral History Collection, 1900 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. 

### “And up on a hill in Rishikesh I came across a holy man / With shining eyes and a toothless smile / He grinned and this is what he said / ‘There’s nothing so tall we can’t climb over / There’s nothing so wide we can not cross / The time has come to raise your voices / The light burns brightest when all hope seems lost / Be Fearless and Play’” ~ Wookiefoot ###


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