Every now and then I’m reminded how I’ve been at this community journalism thing for a long time – 12 years to be exact. I’ve never kept a job for 12 years so I guess I can call community journalism my career.
This week’s reminder was reading in a couple local papers of the award presented to Dr. James E. West, the black guy who invented the microphone installed in all cell phones.
It was way back in 2011 when I volunteered to work the Color of Science event at the Franklin Institute. They gave me the assignment to shuttle many of the esteemed scientists from the airport to the hotel and Franklin Institute where I held them captive for the 20 minute ride asking them about their specialties and getting to know some of the brightest scientific minds in America.
Having rewatched the video below, I was reminded that one of my passengers was a professor from Brown University who taught video game design and robotics, and his robotic demonstration was so amazing to all of us as it was flying around the room. Today, it’s called a drone and you can buy it at Walmart for under $100.
Another passenger was the guy who designed the landing gear on the Mars rover. But, my favorite passenger was Dr. West. We talked for what seemed like hours of his career with Bell Labs and the work that led to inventing the cell phone microphone. Of course, cell phones weren’t even invented yet when he came up with the mic, but his microphone technology was ready for them when manufacturing began.
Of the stories he told, the one that was disappointing but revealing was how he did not profit as we would think from his invention. Because he was an employee of Bell Labs, Bell Labs made a lot of money on that microphone design, and probably not as much as they could have if they knew how important that component has become.
The other disappointment was learning how Dr. West only earned $1.00 from Bell Labs for the microphone design patent. What he explained to me is had it not been for the millions of dollars invested at Bell Labs allowing him to do his research, experiments, and prototypes, the microphone wouldn’t have become a Bell Labs product, so they had every right to make the money on it.
It doesn’t sound completely fair, which make the news of Dr. West earning the John Scott Award great to hear as he continues to be recognized in the scientific community for his great contribution to society.
As an aside, when I attended the Color of Science event at the Franklin Institute, I gained amazing access to the people who run the museum as you’ll see in the video. They encouraged me to bring Chester kids to the museum and after seeing how many black people were in top corporate positions at the museum I knew it would be a great experience. Unfortunately, I failed miserably getting Chester kids to the museum (and it wasn’t for a lack of effort). I was reminded this summer during a tutoring session I conducted how kids still haven’t been to the Franklin Institute when one of the 7th grade students said he was interested in a career in science and engineering but never heard of the Franklin Institute.
We’ve got to do better!