UCSD Historian Affiliated with Calit2 Wins MacArthur Genius Award

9.20.05 -- UCSD aural historian Emily Thompson  has been named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Calit2 academic participant will receive $500,000 in 'no strings attached' support over the next five years.

Emily Thompson
UCSD historian Emily Thompson

Popularly known as a “genius” grant, the award recognizes the creativity, originality and potential of Thompson’s research in the ephemeral and elusive history of the American soundscape.

Thompson is the 14th UCSD scholar to receive a MacArthur Fellowship and the fourth so honored from the university’s Division of Arts and Humanities.

“This is outstanding news for UCSD and for our history department,” said UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox.  “The selection of Prof. Thompson for this award reflects the high caliber of our faculty in the Arts and Humanities Division and clearly demonstrates the innovative and interdisciplinary strengths of all of our academic programs.”

An associate professor in the UCSD department of history, Thompson, is a faculty member in the interdisciplinary Program in  Science Studies and is also an affiliated researcher with the UCSD division of Calit2.

Thompson, 43, focuses on the often-overlooked subject of sound and fills an important gap in contemporary American history, reaching into domains as diverse as urban design and cinema studies. In her book, The Soundscape of Modernity, she integrates the histories of the United States, technology, science, sound production and acoustics to examine the transformation of the American soundscape from the turn of the century to the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1933. 

Asked for her reaction to the award, Thompson said, “I don’t yet know how best to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, but I’m looking forward to figuring it out. I’ve always been interested in trying to reach readers beyond the academic audience, and the MacArthur award may help me do that.”

Thompson said she plans to continue work on her current book project, studying the 1925-33 transition from silent to sound motion pictures, focusing on “the technicians and craft laborers – the people who did all the behind-the-scenes work – to make and show pictures.”

In a recent interview, Thompson discussed how a historian can contribute to the ongoing dialogue within Calit2 and its focus on information technology and telecommunications. "We have talked about various initiatives where I might be able to contribute, such as digital cinema," said Thompson. "There are great parallels between the shift from analog to digital cinema projection and delivery, and the earlier transformation from silent movies to talkies. Who is going to pay to make theaters digital, for instance? It's not clear that movie theaters can make money off of the new technology, so they want the distributors to pay. So there are lots of interesting unresolved issues that Calit2 is involved in as we try to push this technology into the marketplace."

Thompson also intends to organize a conference for Calit2 on sound and sound technologies. "In the past five years or so this has become an exciting field of scholarly research, not just for historians, but also for anthropologists, musicologists, people in literature and so on," she said. "They are suddenly thinking about the 'sound world' past and present. I think Calit2 can bring together all the different people who are working in sound media and get a dialogue going among the technicians and engineers and the users of the technology, together with scholars who have critical insights about sound."

"Professor Thompson is one of the foremost experts on the history of sound technology," said Ramesh Rao, UCSD Division director of Calit2. "We look forward to collaborating with her in the context of our New Media Arts initiatives, and we expect that she will bring her knowledge of earlier technological disruptions to bear on Calit2's research and policy agenda."

Thompson would also like to write articles aimed at a general audience: one, about a fire on a Manhattan soundstage in 1929 where 10 people died; and the other on a group of phonograph collectors, called the Vitaphone Project, that specializes in collecting and preserving the soundtrack discs that accompanied early short films on Vaudeville performers. (Another possible use of the grant monies, Thompson said, may be to underwrite one of the Vitaphone restorations.)

In research to date, Thompson has organized her work around developments in twentieth-century architecture, such as new concert halls and new building materials, and explored innovations in the science of acoustics, the emergence of excessive noise, and the efforts of scientists and designers to create new spaces and a new, “modern” sound.  Her interests have centered around changes in acoustic design as reflections of larger cultural and social shifts in American life in the early 1900s. 

Michael Bernstein, dean of the UCSD Division of Arts and Humanities and history department colleague of Thompson’s said, “This award is recognition of the excellence of Emily’s work in an innovative field, the history of sound technology, and it gives vivid testimony to the unique strengths of our Science Studies program, a major interdisciplinary effort on our campus which integrates faculty from virtually all parts of the university.”

Thompson joined UCSD in February of 2005 after two years at MIT, including one year as a senior fellow in the Dibner Institute for History of Science and Technology. She has held teaching positions at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Iowa State University and the University of Pennsylvania. 

Thompson received a B.S. in physics (1984) from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in history (1992) from Princeton University.

Related Links
MacArthur Fellows Program
Emily Thompson Website

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