Obituary for James L. Flanagan

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Obituary for James L. Flanagan

JAMES L. FLANAGAN (1925 - 2015), a pioneer in the field of acoustics and signal processing died on Tuesday, August 25, at this home in Warren Township, one day shy of his 90th birthday.

James L. Flanagan was born August 26, 1925 in Greenwood, Mississippi. He graduated from high school in 1943 and completed his freshman year at Mississippi State University before joining the U.S. Army at age 18. He returned about three years later, picked up his studies with the help of the G.I. Bill and graduated with a B.S degree in electrical engineering. He continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from where he received the M.S. and Doctor of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering in 1950 and 1955, respectively. He was Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Mississippi State University (1950–1952), and Electronic Scientist at the Air Force Cambridge Research Center (1955–1957). In 1957 he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories. He served 33 years at Bell Labs, retiring in 1990 as Director, Information Principles Research. Subsequent to Bell Laboratories, Flanagan served 15 years as Board of Governors Professor and university Vice President for Research at Rutgers University.

Flanagan’s legendary career was marked by a remarkable productivity of the highest technical and intellectual caliber. A visionary, well ahead of his time, he led the world into the present era of digital speech communications, machine learning and human-to-computer interaction. Voice mail, speech recognition, the artificial larynx, packet-switched voice, are some of the applications that were enabled by the pioneering research of James L. Flanagan.

“Jim Flanagan was a visionary with insight as to how a range of seemingly disparate multimedia technologies could work in unison to create something bigger and more important as a whole; Jim conceived the HuMaNet (Human-to-Machine Network) system as a proof of concept for integrating voice and video processing technologies (HuMaNet built by David Berkley)” Lawrence R. Rabiner, a friend and former colleague who teaches electrical and computer engineering at both Rutgers and the University of California, Santa Barbara, said.
Flanagan’s research career spanned digital communications, speech processing, and acoustics. He led efforts that resulted in the development of adaptive waveform coders. These coders automatically adjust to characteristics of the speech that they encode. His work provided the basis for many of the low bit rate coders in present use. He also led research in speech synthesis and automatic speech recognition. His individual work included comprehensive modeling of basilar membrane motion, leading to useful engineering models of auditory signal processing; theoretical and experimental development of a physiologically based model of vocal excitation for speech production, which provides a basis for advanced types of vocoders; theoretical and practical studies of formant and phase vocoders; and perceptual experiments that quantify the relationship between hearing and speech models and lead to an understanding of fundamental discrimination limits of the ear. He was the author of over 200 papers and two books, and holds 50 patents.

James L. Flanagan received numerous awards, including the 1996 National Medal of Science, presented at the White House by the US President, the Acoustical Society of America Gold Medal Award in1986, the Achievement Award and the Society Award of the IEEE Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing Society, 1970 and 1976, respectively, the Distinguished Centennial Medal, 1984, the IEEE Medal of Honor in 2006, the L. M. Ericson Prize for notable contributions to telecommunications, 1985; and the IEEE Edison Medal, 1986. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1978 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983. He was a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America and Fellow of the IEEE for "contributions to reduced bandwidth speech communications systems and to the fundamental understanding of human hearing". For his groundbreaking contributions IEEE established the IEEE James L. Flanagan Speech and Audio Processing Award in 2002. The award is sponsored by the IEEE Signal Processing Society and is awarded to individuals for an outstanding contribution to the advancement of speech and/or audio signal processing.

In addition to his technical achievements, James L. Flanagan excelled as a mentor of young talent who subsequently attained prominence in their respective fields.

“Among those of us who worked for Jim at Bell Labs, a number of us went on to serve as Presidents of SPS. Off the top of my head these include Larry Rabiner, Ron Schafer, Ron Crochiere, Tom Crystal, and me. Many others who worked in his lab at Bell Labs were active in various SPS technical committees and as Associate Editors, perhaps even right up to the present. He left a real legacy to the society by encouraging our active involvement. And most of us continued that precedent by encouraging others to become involved. He was the consummate role model for all of us in all aspects of our professional careers” Rich Cox, Flanagan’s former colleague at Bell Labs and past IEEE SPS President said.

James L. Flanagan retired in 2005 and is survived by his wife, Mildred Bell Flanagan, by his three sons, Stephen, James and Aubrey, and his five grandchildren.

Dr. James L. Flanagan’s  memorial service, will take place on Wednesday, September 2nd at 3pm Christ Church 561 Springfield avenue, Summit, NJ


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