Photo of James L. Flanagan

James L. Flanagan

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For his pioneering contributions to speech communication research, and his leadership in the application to telecommunications technology.

As a leading researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories, James L. Flanagan was a pioneer in the field of acoustics, speech recognition, teleconferencing, MP3 music files and more efficient digital transmission of human conversation. We have Flanagan to thank for digital assistants like Siri and the automated operators we hear regularly on the phone.

Flanagan was granted about 50 patents, including an artificial human larynx and a typewriter activated by the same audio tones as a push-button phone, allowing deaf individuals to communicate remotely. His many innovations included preserving the sound of a human voice while reproducing it digitally, as well as teaching computers to articulate through converting sound waves into digital pulses. He also helped devise a “force-feedback” tactile glove that enabled medical students to simulate hands-on examinations when a live patient or cadaver was not available.

In a 1976 article, Flanagan recalled that digital speech recognition was originally developed by the telephone company to verify the identity of callers and deter credit card fraud. He predicted the technology could have many other creative applications, such as checking bank balances. People might be able to dictate notes that would appear as text or even speak the name of someone they wanted their phone to dial automatically—activities that we’ve become used to in our daily lives.

By Jen Santisi