Historicity: A Special Opportunity
Rarely do we get the chance to interact with history, much less to say thank you to an under-recognized historic figure who's still with us.
A short pre-amble before we get to today’s bit of historicity.
Mrs. Curious confessed to me the other day that she doesn’t like “this day in history” content as a general rule, because it’s usually just a record of all the worst things we can remember about what happened that day. When the wars and massacres started, the worst natural disasters occurred, or political hooligans screwed over somebody else.
I have to admit she has a point. Even my own Historicity posts bear this out.
While researching these pieces, it is really uncommon to come across positive stories. I have a Google Alert set up that feeds me all kinds of daily history bits & pieces, and this seems to be a common thread across most other publishers too. I have to go out of my way to find more inspiring or uplifting events with a more positive vibe to write about.
I stopped writing for a week (burning up the comfortable lead I’d built ahead of my publishing schedule in the process), frustrated that I wasn’t finding the kind of story I could get inspired to write about for today.
Then, always to the rescue, Mrs. Curious suggested I look more directly at scientific history. We measure so much of our progress and positive achievements based on our scientific and technical advancements that these might be a good avenue of research to find positive, lesser known topics and people to write about.
As usual, she was correct, and I think we have a much more unique piece of history for you in today’s dispatch as a result.
I have to say I enjoyed researching & writing today’s Historicity more than normal. I also met today’s publishing deadline, which certainly keeps me from thrashing myself like a flagellant1 monk with the riding crop Mrs. Curious keeps handy “for discipline”.
With that brain-weevil firmly implanted, let’s get into our daily dose of curated historic curiosity, shall we?
10 February, 1931 - 91 years ago today, in Virginia
In Prince Edward County, Virginia in the U.S. on February 10th 1931 a child was born you’ve probably never heard of. He would grow up to change the world with just one of his many inventions.
James West was a curious boy, always tearing apart appliances to see how they worked.
“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.”
During one of his many experiments there was an accident with a radio that led him to a fascination with electricity. He decided he wanted to become a scientist.
His parents, however, knowing the difficulties a Black scientist would face in the age of Jim Crow laws in the South, tried to convince him to become a doctor instead.
“In those days in the South, the only professional jobs that seemed to be open to a Black man were a teacher, a preacher, a doctor, or a lawyer. My father introduced me to three Black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics. The best jobs they could find were at the post office.”
But young James knew what he wanted and he pursued it with the same vigorous curiosity that he’d employed as a boy. By 1953 he was studying physics at Temple University and landed summer internships for the Acoustic Research Department at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.
He received his bachelors degree in 1957 and was immediately hired to a full time position at Bell Labs.
Three years later, James West and fellow acoustic scientist Gerhard M. Sessler co-developed a cheap, compact, and highly sensitive microphone. Called the “foil electret microphone”, by 1968 it was in mass production.
It quickly became the global standard for microphones, and today nearly 90 percent of all microphones - found in hearing aids, radios, camcorders, baby monitors, cellphones, and even stethoscopes to name just some examples - use their technology.
Retiring from Bell Labs after over forty years, he went on to become a research professor at Johns Hopkins.
James West has developed more than 250 patents and is a prolific author of scientific papers and books. As a role model for all people, he is an incredible example of persistence against racial and economic disparities.
Happy 91st Birthday, Professor James E.M. West, our historic hero whose curiosity is an inspiration for all!
This is the fun part:
Normally in this section of the article I present you with a few leading questions with ideas about where else your curiosity for the day’s topic might take you.
But today, we have a very rare opportunity to actually interact directly with our historic subject, even in just a small way. I mentioned how hard it is to find positive news or context with history sometimes.
Today we are going to be the positive connection to history ourselves, and recognize a true unsung hero personally in the process.
If you or a loved one use hearing aids, if you have a cellphone or a landline telephone, or even if you (like me) used your boom-box in the 1980s to make garage band tapes of music that should never again be heard by humankind, then you have a personal reason to say thank you to Professor James West.
If you use LinkedIn send him a happy birthday note.
Or you can write to him via email, send him a virtual birthday card, a thank you note for his contribution to our lives as a scientist and role model.
What do you say? Can our curious little tribe of distant strangers give Professor West a few extra smiles today on his birthday?
James Edward Maceo West on BlackPast.Org.
James West on HistoryMakers.Org.
James West on Biography.Com.
Electret microphones on Wikipedia
James E. West citations on Google Scholar.
What else makes February 10th special around the world?
On the island of Malta, today is the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, commemorating when the New Testament apostle was shipwrecked on Malta in the year 60 A.D.
It is National Umbrella Day everywhere in the U.S. except Oregon.
Bigfoot and the perfect microbrew? Yes indeed. But true Oregonians do not believe in the existence of umbrellas… ☔
The 24th Winter Olympic games continue in Beijing, China today, and it's the last day of the World AG Expo in Tulare, California.
Famous births on February 10th, under the sign of Aquarius
Hall of Fame basketballer John “Cat" Thompson (1906-1962),
1st American to climb Mount Everest Jim Whittaker (1929-),
American Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz (1950-),
Jurassic Park actress Laura Dern (1967-),
and American actor/comedian Jimmy Durante (1893-1980),.
“All of us have schnozzles2… if not in our faces, then in our character, minds, or habits. When we admit our schnozzles instead of defending them, we begin to laugh, and the world laughs with us."
- Jimmy Durante
Today is the 41st day of the year on the Gregorian calendar. 324 days remaining.
It is 18.104.22.168.18 on the Mayan long count calendar.
It is day 1 - Flint Knife, in the 13 day cycle of the Flint Knife, in the solar year of the Rabbit on the Aztec calendar.
It is 9 Adar I, 5782 on the Jewish calendar.
“Flagellant” (a person who scourges or whips themselves as physical punishment for personal sins or failures), not to be confused with “flatulent” (a person suffering from a serious case of the farts).
In this particular case the punitive value of such confusion would likely be just as effective, as I’ve been known to run myself out of the room at times!
Given that an alternative definition for flatulent is also “inflated or pretentious in speech or writing”, maybe both words have context. I’ll let you be the judge.
“Schnozzles” is the bonus word for making it all the way to the end of the post today. Everyone who comments on today’s post with the word “schnozzles” will be entered in a random drawing to officially be this year’s Curious Curator Unofficial Non-Romantic Physically-Disentangled Valentine.
Limit one entry per person, offer not valid in some states, caution: contents may be hot.