Northwestern Events Calendar


Mara Mills - "There is No Such Thing as Artificial Hearing: Cochlear Implants Become Vocoders (1964-1978)"

When: Monday, April 8, 2024
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM CT

Where: University Hall, 1897 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: FREE

Contact: Janet Hundrieser   (847) 491-3525

Group: Science in Human Culture Program - Klopsteg Lecture Series

Category: Lectures & Meetings



Mara Mills, New York University


"There is No Such Thing as Artificial Hearing: Cochlear Implants Become Vocoders (1964-1978)"


Despite rising popular interest in neurotechnology, little has been written about the development of the first multichannel cochlear implant by otolaryngologist Blair Simmons of Stanford, which set the stage for the commercial devices in widespread use today. A 1967 presentation by Simmons is also credited with introducing the term “cochlear implant” into the scientific literature. In 1964, when Simmons first provided a 6-channel implant to 61-year old Bay Area resident Anthony Vierra, the two flew to the East Coast for speech processor testing by a team of junior scientists known for their experimental electronics research at Bell Telephone Laboratories: Newman Guttman (the first person to compose computer music), Leon Harmon (now recalled as a founder of computer art), Lawrence Frishkopf (an expert on frog listening and handwriting recognition), and Robert Lummis (a Columbia graduate student). This group, now recalled for their contributions to the digital present, was startled by the development of these implants, even if they considered the experiment to be a failure.

Through interviews and archival research, I reconstruct this unusual event. Far from a failure, I argue that it represents a turning point as cochlear implants became speech processors, and as “Silicon Valley” emerged and gained ascendancy in medical electronics. Looking at Simmons’ consultation with vocoder expert James Flanagan of Bell Labs, and his subsequent collaboration with Stanford electrical engineers in the 1970s, I consider the stakes—for disability studies and theories of hearing—of understanding cochlear implants to be speech processors rather than “artificial ears.” 


Mara Mills is Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and founding co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies. She is also a founding editorial board member of Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. She is recently co-editor of Testing Hearing: The Making of Modern Aurality (Oxford 2020), Crip Authorship: Disability as Method (NYU 2023), and a forthcoming special issue of Osiris on "Disability and the History of Science" (July 2024). Other upcoming publications include the NSF-funded edited collection How to be Disabled in a Pandemic (NYU 2024), a coauthored book with Jonathan Sterne on time stretching, and an NEH-funded collaborative research project with Michele Friedner on "The Global Cochlear Implant."

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