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.