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Cell phones and computer code: Awards go to Bell Labs pioneers

James E. West, co-inventor of the electret microphone, and Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the programming language C++, receive the Scott Award on Friday in Philadelphia.

James E. West, inventor of the microphone used in most cell phones, and Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ computer programming language, are winners of the 2018 John Scott Award, given each year in Philadelphia.
James E. West, inventor of the microphone used in most cell phones, and Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ computer programming language, are winners of the 2018 John Scott Award, given each year in Philadelphia.Read moreBoard of Directors of City Trusts

Talk on a cell phone recently?

In all likelihood, the call was made possible by the pioneering smarts of James E. West and Bjarne Stroustrup, both alumni of the fabled Bell Labs research center, based in Murray Hill, N.J.

The two are being honored Friday with the John Scott Award, given annually in Philadelphia for achievement in the sciences.

West, a Temple University graduate who is now an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, is co-inventor of the type of microphone used in most cell phones. Stroustrup, now a managing director in the technology division of Morgan Stanley, created a computer programming language called C++, which is widely used in telecommunications.

Both innovations are useful for much more than making a phone call. West's microphone, which relies on a device called an electret, is commonly used in hearing aids and toys, among other audio devices. Stroustrup's computer language, said to be used by more than 4 million programmers, is "object-oriented" — making it handy for creating graphics and video games.

The common denominator was Bell Labs, which throughout the 20th century was the birthplace for much of what makes modern life possible: transistors, computer chips, circuits used in digital cameras, lasers, fiber optics, and communications satellites.

"It was the most marvelous place on Earth if you wanted to build interesting things," Stroustrup said.

First given in 1822, the Scott Awards are bestowed by the Board of Directors of City Trusts, a group that manages more than 100 charitable trusts for which the City of Philadelphia is named as trustee. The winners are chosen based on recommendations from a panel of scientists — a group that currently includes members from Temple and Drexel Universities and  the University of Pennsylvania.

Scott was a Scottish chemist and pharmacist who endowed the award in honor of Benjamin Franklin, dictating that the prizes be given to "ingenious men or women who make useful inventions." This year each winner receives $15,000 and a copper medal, to be presented in a ceremony at the American Philosophical Society.

West grew up in Virginia and, at his father's urging, enrolled as a pre-med student at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., now called Hampton University.  The family is African American, and West's father felt there were ample jobs in medicine for people of color.

But West, a born experimenter who once took apart his grandfather's watch, was drawn to pure science. Midway through college, he transferred to Temple to study physics — even though his parents, upset at the news, cut off financial support.

While at Temple, West landed a summer internship at Bell Labs, then part of AT&T, which led to a full-time job after he graduated in 1956. Just six years later, West and colleague Gerhard M. Sessler created the electret microphone.

Microphones work by converting sound waves into an electrical signal, a process that relies upon the presence of a magnetic field. At the time, microphones needed bulky batteries to generate such fields in a way that would minimize sound distortion.

But an electret — a type of material that holds electric charge in a manner analogous to a magnet — needed no battery. West and Sessler sought to harness that ability to make a compact, high-quality microphone. West said they experimented with a variety of synthetic materials that could "trap" the necessary charge before settling on Teflon, which had been discovered two decades earlier by a scientist at another U.S. industrial giant: the DuPont Co.

"We can open the trap, jam an electron in, and close that trap," said West, 87. "Now you have a field emanating from the trapped charge."

Stroustrup, who is West's junior by 20 years, came to Bell Labs in 1979 and worked in a different building, though the two became aware of each other's work.

A native of Denmark, he studied computer science in that country at Aarhus University and later earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge University before coming to the research lab in New Jersey.

Stroustrup said he created C++ because he needed a computer language that could manipulate hardware efficiently while allowing him to define "classes" of objects. In the case of a video game, for example, the programmer might create a class of "human," with a set of core instructions for how humans run, jump, and walk. Then the coder could make individual human characters with varying levels of running ability.

AT&T released the first commercial version of C++ in 1985. Under the terms of its monopoly, the company was not allowed to earn a profit on software, so it sold Stroustrup's work at cost — $75 worth of bulky magnetic tape plus shipping, he said. The tape ran on big computers.

"You needed something like a very large refrigerator to read it," he said.

Stroustrup moved to Texas A&M University in 2002, then to Morgan Stanley in 2014. He also is currently a visiting professor of computer science at Columbia University.

West joined the faculty at Hopkins in 2001, where he has continued inventing — most recently working on a digital stethoscope to improve pneumonia diagnosis in developing countries. His daughter, Ellington, is chief executive officer of Sonavi Labs, a company that plans to commercialize the stethoscope in 2019.

The inventor has been honored for his achievements by numerous other organizations, including the Franklin Institute in 2010. In addition to doing research, he has been a strong advocate of science education — both for minorities who are underrepresented in technical fields and for Americans as a whole. While at Bell Labs, for example, he and several colleagues pooled their money to open a storefront science center across the street from a nearby playground.

West warned that the United States is losing its technological edge because too few students pursue the sciences compared with some other countries, such as China. West said that when his post-doctoral students from China go home to pursue their own research, the level of government support allows them to create larger and more active labs than his own.

The key to making discoveries such as his microphone is to have lots of people in the mix, he said.

"Science is a grinding operation," West said. "If you've got people to turn the crank, you're going to find out things."