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September 20, 2005

UCSD Historian Of Sound Technology
Wins 2005 MacArthur 'Genius' Award

By Inga Kiderra

Aural historian Emily Thompson of the University of California, San Diego, has been named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She will receive $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years.

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 15th UCSD scholar to receive a MacArthur Fellowship and the fifth 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 California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at UCSD.

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.”

She 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.

The Division of Arts and Humanities, comprised of the departments of history, literature, philosophy, music, theater & dance and visual arts, includes top-ranked programs in theater, digital arts and film, as well as Latin American and Asian history. The departments of literature and philosophy were also ranked in the top 20 nationwide by the National Research Council.

The MacArthur Fellows Program was the first grantmaking initiative of the MacArthur Foundation, one of the nation's largest private philanthropic foundations. The inaugural class of MacArthur Fellows was named in 1981. Including this year's 25 recipients, 707 people have so far received the grants which enable them to accelerate their current activities or take their work in new directions.

To learn more about the MacArthur Foundation

To learn more about Emily Thompson

Media Contact: Inga Kiderra, (858) 822-0661

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