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James E. West, co-inventor of the electret microphone and 1999 Inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, autographs the shirt of James Hawkins during West's visit to Camp Invention at Aberdeen High School Wednesday.
James E. West, co-inventor of the electret microphone and 1999 Inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, autographs the shirt of James Hawkins during West's visit to Camp Invention at Aberdeen High School Wednesday. (Erika Butler/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun)

Jeremy Gilmour wants to invent an alternative to an electric car.

“I’m thinking a hydrocar, it’s the most challenging thing ever,” Gilmour said during a break from Camp Invention at Aberdeen High School Wednesday. “I want it to run on water but instead of using combustion, I’m thinking a windmill, and the water will force the windmill to be constantly spinning.”

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His only challenge is how to keep the water from freezing when it’s cold outside.

Jeremy is 10, going into fifth grade at Roye-Williams Elementary School in Havre de Grace. He has attended Camp Invention three to four times, he said.

On Wednesday, he and the other campers got to meet “real-life” inventor James E. West, who co-invented the electret microphone that is used in 90 percent of today’s microphones, including in smartphones and laptop computers.

“It makes the idea of inventing tangible,” said Laura Bulger, the director of Aberdeen High’s Camp Invention and a gifted and talented teacher at North Bend and Forest Lakes elementary schools. “They can come up with the own creation and innovation in life.”

West is a 1999 inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which sponsors Camp Invention. Similar camps will be held next week at St. Joan of Arc School in Aberdeen and Patterson Mill Middle and High School.

West spent two hours in and out of the various camp sessions, talking with the students, who are going into first through sixth grades.

The 88-year-old from Baltimore, who is on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, has been speaking at an average of two camps a year “since longer than I can remember.”

“Because I’m still 11 years old, I’m still learning," West said. “The most productive years in our society happen to be kids this age. When I say productive I mean their imagination is there, they’re accustomed to thinking.”

The educational system doesn’t promote or nurture that, he said, which makes camps like Camp Invention so important.

“Once children learn the process of discovering, once they understand they have a brain, they’ll never lose that,” West said. “That will stay with them the rest of their lives. What’s important is the exposure kids get.”

West spoke with the campers about his inventions, including the failures that helped him succeed.

It took him “more times than I can count” to invent the electret microphone, he said.

“The lesson from that is things don’t always work they way you think they should,” West said.

Every one of his approximately 60 patented ideas took a long time to get to work.

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“I never gave up, I never give up,” West said. “I continue working hard to solve problems.”

He’s still inventing. Most recently he’s been working with graduate students to develop a stethoscope that can detect pneumonia, a very curable disease but one that’s difficult to diagnose. More than one million children die from pneumonia each year around the world, he said.

When it’s held up to a person’s chest, a red light indicates a problem, a green light means everything is OK.

“That will be really good because you can get treatment earlier,” he said.

As they moved closer to development, West complained to his daughter, Ellington, that such a wonderful device would just sit on the shelf because he couldn’t market it.

About a year ago, Ellington West quit her job to become CEO of Sonavi Labs, which is making the devices. West said he hopes the first ones will be available toward the end of the year.

“What encouraged her to do that is, we don’t know whose brain will come up with a major discovery, so each child who is saved and allowed to grow up could be one of the ones to make the kinds of discoveries that will change and improve quality of life for everyone,” West said.

He told the students he expects each of them to become an inventor.

“We need you to be able to figure out how to make the Earth better,” he said. “Why? Because the Earth is in trouble and people need to reverse that, to turn it around and make it go in the other direction.”

Nine-year-old Payson Adomo-Diaz asked West for his autograph because “he’s the first person I got to meet who is famous,” she said.

She also said they have a lot of stuff in common and she wanted to remember the day.

“We like to discover stuff,” said Payson, who will begin third grade at Bakerfield Elementary in Aberdeen this fall.

Jennifer Brosh, a kindergarten teacher at Forest Lakes Elementary who helps develop the school system’s science curriculum, is one of the camp teachers.

Her son, Benjamin Brosh, attended the camp many summers ago at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School. A flier at the school said campers would take apart an old VCR and turn it into something different.

It was perfect for her son, who was always science-minded.

Science is still part of Benjamin Brosh’s life. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a mechanical engineering degree, he is now a nuclear engineer at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia.

West said that shows how Camp Invention “provides a really, really important base.”

He also encouraged the students to go to college and understand science and math.

“To understand science, you have to understand math,” West said. “The more you understand science, the better inventor you will be.”

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