In Memoriam: James L. Flanagan

The IEEE Life Fellow profoundly influenced our understanding of how humans speak and hear

3 September 2015

IEEE Life Fellow James L. Flanagan was a pioneer in the field of acoustics, envisioning and providing the technical foundation for speech recognition, teleconferencing, MP3 music files, and the more efficient digital transmission of human conversation. He died on 25 August, just one day shy of his 90th birthday.

Flanagan was born 26 August 1925 in Greenwood, Miss. He served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1948 from Mississippi State University, in Starkville, and master’s and doctoral degrees in EE from MIT in 1950 and 1955. Flanagan was an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Mississippi State from 1950 to 1952.

After earning his doctorate, Flanagan worked as an electronics scientist at the U.S. Air Force’s Cambridge Research Center, in Massachusetts. In 1957, he joined the technical staff of Bell Laboratories, in Murray Hill, N.J. He was named head of the Speech and Auditory Research Department in 1961, head of the Acoustics Research Department in 1967, and director of the Information Principles Research Laboratory in 1985.

In 1990, Flanagan joined Rutgers University, in Piscataway, N.J., and was named vice president for research and director of the Center for Advanced Information Processing. There he led the development of global systems for speech-activated human-computer interfaces that incorporate sight and touch modalities.


Flanagan profoundly influenced our understanding of how humans speak and hear. His early research led to an increased understanding of how the human ear processes signals, the development of advanced methods to assist hearing, and improved voice communication systems. These achievements, which are in addition to his primary telecommunications work, included an electronic artificial larynx, playback recording techniques for the visually impaired, and automatic speech recognition to help those with motor impairments.

He was one of the first researchers to see the potential of speech as a means for human-machine communication. He contributed to techniques for automatic speech synthesis and recognition and to signal-coding algorithms for telecommunications and voice mail systems, including voice mail storage, voice dialing, and call routing. He also created autodirective microphone arrays for high-quality sound capture in teleconferencing and pioneered the use of digital computers for acoustic signal processing.

Flanagan’s research was documented in more than 140 technical papers in archival journals, and he was awarded 45 U.S. patents. His book Speech Analysis, Synthesis and Perception (Springer-Verlag, 1965) has become a major reference work in speech communications research. In addition, he will be remembered for analyzing audio from the Watergate scandal, in which members of U.S. president Richard Nixon’s administration attempted to wiretap the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex, in Washington, D.C.

In addition to his individual contributions, Flanagan directed research at Bell Laboratories in speech recognition, speech synthesis, digital coding, electroacoustics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. He directly influenced fundamental techniques and algorithms now widely used in digital speech processing.

Flanagan was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1969 for “contributions to reduced-bandwidth speech communication systems and the fundamental understanding of human hearing.” He was also awarded eminent member status in IEEE-Eta Kappa Nu, the honor society. In 2002, IEEE created a Technical Field Award in his name, sponsored by the IEEE Signal Processing Society.* The annual prize is given to a person who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of speech and/or audio signal processing.

In 2005, Flanagan was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor “for sustained leadership and outstanding contributions to speech technology.” He also received the IEEE Achievement Award, the IEEE Centennial Medal, and the 1986 IEEE Edison Medal “for a career of innovation and leadership in speech communication science and technology.”

Flanagan was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1973 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983. He also served as an advisor to the U.S. government as well as several defense organizations and universities. He received the Distinguished Service Award in Science from the American Speech and Hearing Association and was co-recipient of the L M Ericsson International Prize for notable contributions to telecommunications.

Flanagan is survived by his wife, Mildred Bell Flanagan; his three sons, Stephen, James, and Aubrey; and five grandchildren.

His oral history can be found on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

*This article has been corrected.

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