THOMAS G. STOCKHAM, JR.
Elected in 1998
“For contributions to the field of digital audio recording.”
BY ALAN V. OPPENHEIM
THOMAS G. STOCKHAM, JR., professor at the University of Utah and widely regarded as the father of digital audio, died on January 6, 2004, at the age of 70. Professor Stockham was born on December 22, 1933, in Passaic, New Jersey.
Tom was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1998. His career was strongly influenced by his love for teaching, music, perfection, and family and by his incredible skills as an engineer. He received all of his degrees in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was appointed as an assistant professor at MIT in 1959. In the mid-1960s he joined the research staff at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, and in 1968 he joined the faculty at the University of Utah where he helped establish its computer science department. Early in his academic career at MIT, Tom worked closely with Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation, on the use of digital computers for measurement and simulation of room acoustics and for audio recording and enhancement. Through this work he became a pioneer in the field of digital signal processing, a technology that in the 1960s was totally impractical for real-time applications since the processors could fill (and heat) a room, and clock speeds were extremely slow by today’s standards. It was partly through Tom’s pioneering work on digital signal processing algorithms that this technology eventually emerged as critical to virtually all modern communication and multimedia systems.
In the mid-1970s Tom was one of six technical experts appointed by Judge John J. Sirica of Federal District Court to examine the now-famous Watergate tapes made in President Richard Nixon’s office. The technical panel was charged with determining what caused the 18½-minute gap and to attempt to recover what was apparently erased. During that investigation, Tom became well known for his calm and expertise on the witness stand. At one point he was asked under cross-examination by attorney James St. Claire something along the lines of the following: “Now, Professor Stockham, do you seriously think that anything meaningful could be said within a few-second interval?” Tom replied, “You bet!”—and then kept silent. The panel eventually reported that the famous gap was caused by at least five separate erasures and rerecordings, not by a single accidental pressing of the wrong button on a tape recorder, as the Nixon White House had suggested.
In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, Tom commented that he began working on digital recording of music in 1962 but that the technology for commercial recordings was not ready until the early 1970s. In 1975 he cofounded Soundstream, Inc., a company dedicated to high-quality digital recording and remastering of audio. In 1976 Soundstream made the first live digital recordings, featuring the Santa Fe Opera, and demonstrated them at the 1976 Audio Engineering Society meeting.
Among other notable successes was the release by RCA of “Caruso: A Legendary Performer,” the first in a series of famed opera singer Enrico Caruso’s recordings that were remastered. The result, as reported in the press, was “stunningly clear and clean restored recordings of the great Italian tenor.” Also quite astonishingly, Tom was able to separate the singing from the orchestra with the eventual possibility (unrealized) of having a new orchestra dubbed in. In 1980 Soundstream merged with Digital Recording Corporation. With Tom’s success in digital recording and remastering, digital audio generated an enormous following of strong adherents but also an active and vocal opposition, even giving rise to a group called Musicians Against Digital, since some felt that sound quality would
suffer. One particularly vocal opponent, a medical practitioner, continually made the claim that digital music would be a health hazard (perhaps, I guess, because of the sharp edges on the bits?) with direct reference to what Soundstream was accomplishing.
In 1982–1983 Tom was president of the Audio Engineering Society. Throughout his career he was recognized for his many extraordinary accomplishments. In 1988 he received an Emmy Award for his work on tapeless audio and editing systems, and in 1994 he received a Grammy Award for his “visionary role in pioneering and advancing the era of digital recording.” In 1999 he was corecipient of an Oscar, a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for work in digital audio editing. His many other awards and recognitions included MIT’s prestigious Goodwin Medal for conspicuously effective teaching, election as a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal, the Gold Medal from the Audio Engineering Society, the Poniatoff Gold Medal from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and election to the National Academy of Engineering.
As expressed to me by his family, at home Tom was a loving husband to Martha Goodman Stockham and a dedicated father to four children—Tom III, Carol, John, and David. His love of the outdoors and the grandeur of the American West meant frequent family vacations were spent exploring the natural wonders of the region, albeit with the soul of an incurable engineer. Tom loved the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park, where with meticulous precision he tracked the geysers’ activities, frequently helping the National Park Service better understand the area’s thermal activity. He loved the geology and stunning formations of Southern Utah, where he easily recognized by name and character every one of dozens of layers of sandstone and could predict what types of arches and ruins might be found around a new hike’s every corner.
He especially loved the deep, sinuous canyons of Lake Powell, where he combined his lifelong love of boating with his
love of exploring places that few people will ever experience. There he also used a tuning fork to more precisely set his boats’ engine speeds (because the tachometers that came with the boats were not precise enough). He spent countless hours with an eye to a telescope under the breathtaking night skies of the high desert, where eventually he helped bring more precision to our understanding of when Polaris will align with the North Pole. Tom was also an accomplished pilot and certified aerobatics instructor and an expert skier.
Above all, Tom was a deeply caring husband, father, teacher, and mentor, sharing his passion and knowledge with his family, his students, his co-workers, and anyone who cared to soak in all that he had to offer.
As expressed in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News: “Tom was a man of highest integrity and deepest love. He spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge that would enhance the world, and lived his life in joyful exploration that extended to everyone around him. Often those with whom he interacted commented that he could explain the most complicated concepts with ease and clarity, displaying not only an enormous and uncanny intellect but also a keen ability to relate to his listeners and communicate to their level of understanding. His kindness was unconditional and pervasive.”
I personally had the pleasure and opportunity of meeting Tom when I was a graduate student and he was just returning from the Air Force to begin his academic career as a junior faculty member at MIT. He was a close personal friend and mentor, and I was privileged to personally experience and benefit from his many wonderful and unique abilities and qualities. There is a large community within and outside the National Academy of Engineering whose lives and careers were touched and enhanced both directly and indirectly by Tom Stockham.