The voice of computers croaks

sultan.sulf1James Flanagan, the man who helped computers to talk has died of a heart attack.  He was 89.

As a leading researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories, Flanagan pioneered the developing field of acoustics and developed the tech for speech recognition, teleconferencing, MP3 music files and the more efficient digital transmission of human conversation.

He was famouse for his 1976 article, “Computers That Talk and Listen: Man-Machine Communication by Voice,” that appeared in Proceedings of the I.E.E.E., a journal published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

More than 39 years ago, the point is that it painted a picture of society in the 21st century that actually happened.

Flanagan had his name on 50 patents. These included an artificial human larynx and a typewriter activated by the same audio tones as a push-button phone for the deaf.

His innovations included preserving the sound of a human voice while crunching it digitally.

He also taught computers to articulate by converting sound waves into digital pulses.

In 1974, Flanagan was one of six acoustical experts appointed by the courts in the President Nixon Watergate scandal. He proved that 18.5 minutes of a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, on June 20, 1972, were deleted in five separate erasures and re-recordings requiring “hand operation of keyboard controls”.

The conversation took place three days after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington.

Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, accepted blame for erasing the first five minutes of the tape, saying she had been interrupted by a telephone call while transcribing it. Her explanation was dismissed as technically implausible. Nixon later resigned under threat of impeachment for, among other charges, withholding evidence.

Flanagan had come a long way from his family’s cotton farm in Greenwood, Mississippi Delta.

He joined the Army Air Forces at 17, worked to perfect signal scrambling and radar during World War II. Afterwards he returned to Mississippi State University and later received a master’s degree and a doctorate from M.I.T. In 1956, he joined Bell Labs, where he would work for 33 years. He retired in 1990 as director of information principles research.

In addition to his wife, Mildred, he is survived by his sons, Stephen, James and Aubrey and five grandchildren.