Hearing history: Thompson explores sound technology

by Hilary Parker

For Princeton history professor Emily Thompson, the record player is an auditory portal to the past.

Consider the early days after the phonograph’s invention by Thomas Edison in 1877, when people weren’t quite sure what to do with the device. At the time, many thought its most promising future would be as a piece of office equipment, used by male executives to record notes and dictate correspondence.

“That didn’t really catch on,” Thompson explained. “There were a lot of social problems. In particular, [most] men liked dictating to attractive young women, not machines.”

Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson, once an engineer at Bell Laboratories, now focuses on the relationship between sound technology and modern U.S. history in her research and teaching as a professor of history at Princeton. “I hope to give the students the historical background to understand that technology reflects our social and cultural values,” she said. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

Unearthing insights into office politics, labor history or other subjects by studying technology drives Thompson, a former Bell Laboratories engineer who switched careers to earn a Ph.D. in the history of science from Princeton and has become a leading figure in her new field.

“You can take the phonograph and use it to trace other aspects of American history and see how history changes it,” she said. “It has a lot to tell us if we listen to it.”

For example, jump to the early 1900s, when in-home phonographs for musical entertainment became popular, raising intellectual property issues about the ownership of songs and performances. Or fast-forward to the 1970s, when hip-hop DJs turned the machine itself into a musical instrument by mixing samples of existing songs to create fresh new sounds, illustrating the impact of technology on American culture. And today, the phonograph has been replaced by digital musical technologies, which are blurring the line between technical and artistic creativity.

“Historians have only begun to think seriously about what the past sounded like — not just performed or recorded sound, but the soundscape that is always around us,” said Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era. “Emily’s work has pioneered that history by exploring how changing technology has affected the ear of modern times, times when performances of music, but not just music, became ever more present in our aural and imaginative lives. I can’t think of an important aspect of modern American history — from politics, [with] FDR’s fireside chats through Obama’s iPod and YouTube campaign, to marketing to theater — that has not been touched by the history of sound technology. And as its historian, Emily is peerless.”

Thompson herself has been listening to record players since she received her first phonograph at age 10. But she didn’t always hear the historical lessons to be learned.

Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Thompson loved records and playing the flute, but didn’t imagine that music would ever be a part of her career.

“In the socioeconomic world I grew up in, a musical career meant either being a flutist in a symphony orchestra or a high school band director. I wasn’t good enough to be the former, and I wasn’t interested in becoming the latter.” she said. “Kids who did well in math back then were expected to go into engineering. My father was an engineer. If you got a good job as an engineer, you’d be set for life.”

During her undergraduate years at the Rochester Institute of Technology studying electrical engineering and physics, Thompson did sound engineering at the Eastman School of Music and worked for the Pittsburgh radio station WQED-FM. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics, she took a job as an engineer at Bell Laboratories developing an integrated circuit for video teleconferencing.

“I had a great job, and I have the utmost respect for engineers, but engineering wasn’t a fulfilling life for me,” she said.

When Thompson stumbled upon the field of the history of science and technology, she found what would become a bridge to her future life.

Thompson was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship to support her studies and earned her Ph.D. from Princeton in 1992, advised by Charles Gillispie, now the Dayton Stockton Professor of History Emeritus. Her dissertation, which focused on architectural acoustics, ultimately developed into her critically acclaimed book, “The Soundscape of Modernity,” an exploration of technology, sound production and U.S. history from 1900 to 1933, when Radio City Music Hall first opened its doors. Her work garnered her a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2005.

Jerry Fabris
The class made and played back records
In a session of Thompson’s course “In the Groove: Technology and Music in American History, From Edison to the iPod,” Jerry Fabris (above), museum curator of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, demonstrated an acoustic wax cylinder phonograph from the early 20th century. The class made and played back records on the machine. At left, Thompson, graduate student Minlei Ye and junior Dana Eitches examined the phonograph. (photos: Guannan Wang)

“Emily Thompson has been one of the lights of my professional life ever since I first taught her as a graduate student,” Wilentz said. “If the word ‘funky’ can be applied to an intellect, it belongs to Emily’s — funky in the sense of offbeat, but with the highest standard of excellence. She also has a wicked sense of humor that keeps some of the more absurd aspects of life in perspective.”

After graduating from Princeton, Thompson was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, a visiting scholar at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a faculty member at Iowa State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California-San Diego. She returned to Princeton to join the University faculty in 2006 as a professor of history and currently is working on a book, “Sound Effects,” about the sound engineers and technicians who were involved in the shift from silent to sound movies in the United States between 1925 and 1933.

Sounding out ideas in the classroom

Thompson shares her expertise and approach with students in courses including a new class this semester titled “In the Groove: Technology and Music in American History, From Edison to the iPod.”

In a recent meeting of the course, Thompson prepared to play two different 1920s recordings for her students to highlight the difference between two kinds of recordings: acoustic, in which the sound was collected by a horn and piped to a diaphragm that vibrated the cutting stylus; and electrical, in which sound was captured with microphones and amplified with vacuum tubes to drive an electromagnetic recording head.

“Listen to the background music, to the orchestra,” she told the students. “How distinctly can you hear each instrument? Think about the overall quality of the sound.”

Then, with a motion she clearly has perfected over the years, she raised the arm of her record player and gently lowered it onto a 78 rpm vinyl recording.

The McCosh Hall classroom filled with the slightly staticky sounds of a 1923 acoustic recording of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” performed by Billy Murray. Next up was an electrical recording he made two years later, “Roll ’Em Girls” (a song about stockings).

“Can you identify any differences in the sound quality?” she asked, when the last notes of the second song faded away.

The students were quick to point out differences: The singer sounds like he’s trying hard to sing loud in the first record; the individual instruments are much more distinct in the electrical recording.

“The electrification of recording and playback transformed the recording industry and even music itself,” Thompson said, in response to their observations. From that, she was off to explore how the connection between electricity and sound can be traced back to the invention of the telephone and improvements in communications technologies of that time.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, she explained the physics of telephones, the development of commercial radio broadcasting stations in the 1920s and the struggle for the recording industry to compete with the overwhelming popularity of radio. Along the way, she incorporated props such as an old-time telephone and a black-and-white photograph of an acoustic recording session.

“The most interesting aspect of the course is seeing how American society has come to view music technology over the past century and a half,” said Marcus Perkins, a senior majoring in economics. “For example, it’s interesting to see the reactions people had to the phonograph and how they thought it would destroy music.

“Professor Thompson has done a great job of making the class interesting,” he said. “Whether it’s playing us Led Zeppelin to exhibit the innovations of stereo sound or bringing in an actual phonograph and having students perform and record onto phonograph cylinders, the class has been really enjoyable.”

Thompson said using that phonograph in class has enabled her to draw students into the discussion
of how technology has affected culture and how culture has affected technology.

“The phonograph is a wonderful pedagogical example for the history of technology,” she said. “We have this idea that technology changes our lives; we talk about the impact of technology. The phonograph shows how the reverse is actually true — it’s an ongoing process, a dialogue between the technology and ourselves over what we want to do with recorded sound. I hope to give the students the historical background to understand that technology reflects our social and cultural values. It is no better or worse than we are.”