Thomas P. Hughes, 90, history of technology scholar

Thomas P. Hughes
Thomas P. Hughes
Posted: March 14, 2014

Before his 2005 move to Charlottesville, Va., where he died Monday, Feb. 3, at age 90, University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas P. Hughes was a familiar presence in Chestnut Hill, bicycling to and from the early service at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, or buying crackers and cheese for the intimate gatherings of neighbors and Penn colleagues he hosted at his house on Millman Street.

It wasn't just any house. Dr. Hughes' home was that icon of modern architecture known as "Mother's House," designed by Robert Venturi for his mother, Vanna. Dr. Hughes and his wife, Agatha Chipley Hughes, an editor, teacher, and artist who died in 1997, bought the house in 1973, the year Dr. Hughes was hired at Penn.

"Bob put the house up for sale right after his mother died," recalled Venturi's wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown. "To Tom's amazement, he found the Vanna Venturi house was for sale. Then Bob had terrible seller's remorse. But Tom and Agatha assured Bob they would take care of the house and welcome visitors, as Vanna had done.

"They were marvelous to us, and we often had Thanksgiving with them. Tom was a very loving person - he always gave me a kiss, which I called his 'Southern gentleman' kiss."

In his own field, Dr. Hughes was as well known as Venturi and Scott Brown are in theirs. A leading scholar in the history of technology, he was first a professor in the history and sociology of science department at Penn, then the Andrew W. Mellon professor from 1987 to 1994. He was Mellon professor emeritus at the time of his death.

He was the author of five books on the history of technology, two of them edited by his wife. In 1990, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

"His books are not about the history of machines," said his son, Lucian. "He wrote about people's involvement with technology, about our lives in a human-built world. And he believed that the history of technology must also focus on the artists and architects who sought to find the voice of this brave new world of energy, light, noise, and change."

Thomas Parke Hughes was born in 1923 in Richmond, Va., to a family his son described as "solidly middle class and conservative." He was introduced to art, which became a lifelong passion, while working as a bicycle delivery boy for a local pharmacy. "Dad dropped off a prescription with a professor of Asian studies, got a glimpse of his art collection, and that was that," said Lucian Hughes.

He received a doctorate in modern European history from the University of Virginia after first earning a degree in engineering and serving in the Pacific as a naval officer during World War II. In addition to teaching at Penn, he was a distinguished visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Torsten Althin professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a recipient of the Leonardo da Vinci Medal for the History of Technology and a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship. The Royal Institute of Technology and Northwestern University awarded him honorary degrees.

Survivors also include a daughter, Agatha H., and his longtime partner, Mary Hill Caperton.

A memorial will be held in early April at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Donations may be made online or by check to the Alzheimer's Association, Central and Western Virginia Chapter, 1160 Pepsi Place, Suite 306, Charlottesville, Va. 22901.

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