Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

James Flanagan, SM '50, ScD '55

Voice-mail pioneer launched second career in higher education.

Thanks in large part to research directed by James Flanagan at AT&T Bell Laboratories, there are no longer 80,000 telephone operators nationwide connecting calls by hand.

“We helped these coworkers go on to less tedious and more interesting ways to spend their time,” says Flanagan, whose work in communication and speech coding did much more than change the careers of telephone operators. During Flanagan’s 33 years working for Bell Labs, his teams helped pioneer much of today’s digital communications technology, including voice-mail systems, cellular telephones, and computer-generated speech technology. “I felt advancing communication would advance our quality of life,” Flanagan says.

As the director of the Information Principles Laboratory, Flanagan led the work that devised digital coding techniques crucial to Audix One, the first digital voice-mail system. His lab also worked on automatic speech recognition and developed some of the digital storage techniques that paved the way for MP3 players. “We were just aiming at efficient transmission and storage,” Flanagan recalls. “It turned out to have very useful implications.”

Much of Flanagan’s research centered on how sound is produced in humans. “The aim was to understand how to represent the information in a speech signal,” he says. Medical doctors saw other implications. A Japanese surgeon took a particular interest in Flanagan’s research and used it to model the changes in speech that might occur after a patient has vocal-cord surgery.

Over the years, Flanagan won many awards, including the National Medal of Science and the
L. M. Ericsson International Prize in Telecommunica-tions. He has published hundreds of papers and holds 50 patents.

In 1990, Flanagan retired from Bell Laboratories to embark on a second career in academia. For 15 years, he served as director of the Center for Advanced Information Processing at Rutgers University in New Jersey and also as the university’s vice president of research. Flanagan says his MIT education served as a model at Rutgers, where he treated his graduate students like research colleagues, mirroring his own experience at the Institute. “The attitude toward students at MIT is exceptional,” he says.

Flanagan, who lives with his wife, Mildred, in New Jersey, is mostly retired but continues to do research consulting.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.