Prestigious fellowship is ‘pleasant surprise’ for physics grad

It should come as no surprise that Emily Thompson ’84 (physics), has been named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow. While her work has taken her on an intellectual odyssey to several universities including Princeton (Ph.D. in history), MIT, Harvard and the University of California, the aural historian says she learned the value of perseverance here – in class at the Brick City.

Thompson is the first RIT alum to be named a MacArthur Fellow – an honor that carries a $500,000 stipend to be used in any way the recipient sees fit. Each year the charitable John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selects 25 fellows: Men and women who are rewarded for outstanding creativity, originality and potential.

Thompson had no way of knowing she was even being considered for the fellowship. All 25 fellows are contacted in the same way: an out-of-the-blue phone call announcing a half-million dollars of “no strings attached” support.

“The man on the phone seemed to find great joy in prolonging the announcement about my award,” Thompson says. “He asked if I had heard of the foundation, or if I knew anyone who had been a previous fellow, and of course I was asking myself, ‘Did I win?’ When he told me, of course I was pleasantly surprised.”

The pleasant surprise will come in handy, as Thompson hopes to buy a house in California, where she conducts research and teaches at the University of San Diego.

The bulk of the stipend will further her work as a historian of technology. Thompson’s combined experiences allow her to study early 20th century America through a technological lens. Her research explores the cultural history of sound, music, noise and listening to focus on how these phenomena and activities intersect with technologies such as the phonograph and motion pictures, and architecture.

In 2002, Thompson published The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Concerning the book, Thompson again accredits RIT. “Perhaps surprisingly, I think one of the most influential courses I took at RIT was one of my very few liberal arts electives,” she says. “I took a course on the history of American architecture with Professor Wetherald, and what I learned there – which was a lot – really stuck with me. My book is a history of architectural acoustics, and I think my interest in that subject really came out of my fascination with his course.”

Thompson’s current work is devoted to publishing Sound Effects, a book about early American film. Because of the fellowship, her plan to release a DVD with the book has been made possible, and her dream to restore old films is finally within reach. She says it will be a thrill to rescue a feature film that would otherwise be lost forever, and it will be a great way to share her good fortune with fellow historians as well as with movie fans.

Sharing is important to Thompson, who admitted that the first thing she will do with her stipend is to celebrate with friends. Thompson began deep relationships during her time at RIT, friends of whom she says, “I couldn’t live without.”

The University Magazine, Winter 2005