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Doc's life

Midwestern Boy: 1903 – 1926

Edgerton's early life

Harold Eugene Edgerton, the first of Frank and Mary Edgerton’s three children, was born in Fremont, Nebraska, on April 6, 1903. Motors and machines of all sorts fascinated young Harold and he enjoyed taking apart broken things, figuring out how they worked, and fixing them.

Harold became interested in photography through his uncle, Ralph Edgerton, a studio photographer. Uncle Ralph taught Harold how to take, develop, and print pictures. Harold worked summers during high school at the Nebraska Power and Light Company. From sweeping floors to repairing downed lines, Edgerton liked his work because, he said, it was “a tremendous challenge [with] all kinds of things happening every day.”

After he received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1925, Harold accepted a one-year research position at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He later recalled that it was while he was at GE, studying the large electric motors used for electricity generation, that he saw a strobe for the first time.

Harold E. Edgerton as a baby


Studies at MIT: 1926 – 1931

Harold Edgerton began his graduate studies at MIT in the fall of 1926 and found a workplace that entirely suited his temperament.

With his ever-present sense of humor Doc recounted, at a graduation address to Aurora NE High School students in 1987, that “Upon graduation at Nebraska I applied to MIT for graduate study. During the summer, I asked an Aurora student who had been to Harvard if he knew anything about MIT. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘MIT only takes smart students.’ From then on, I have disregarded the opinions of Harvard students.”

At MIT Doc studied the problems of synchronous motors, in which the speed of the motor is the same as the frequency of the electric current running it. He was most interested in what happened when a sudden change, like the surge caused by lightning striking the power lines, reached the motor. But parts of the motor spun so fast that his eye could not see what was happening. Doc noticed that a tube he was using to send power surges to the motor flashed brightly as the power peaked. When the flash of the light synchronized with the motor’s turning parts, it made them look like they were standing still. Then they could be analyzed!

In 1927, Edgerton received his master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT. The following year, he was named an instructor and also married Esther May Garrett.

In 1931, he earned his PhD.; his doctoral dissertation included a high-speed motion picture of a motor in motion, made with a mercury-arc stroboscope.HE

Harold Edgerton discusses his first impressions of MIT

On Van Bush's Boat


Strobe in Industry: 1931 – onwards

From 1931 onwards, Edgerton developed and improved strobes and used them to freeze objects in motion so that they could be captured on film by a camera. In the same year he developed techniques to use the strobe for ultra-high-speed movies. Adjustments and improvements by HEE to stroboscopic technologies continued throughout his career.

Even before the stroboscope was available commercially, Edgerton, Germeshausen, and another of Edgerton’s students, Herbert E. Grier, were hired as consultants by a variety of industries. In 1931 alone, they turned the stroboscope light on printing presses and machinery that made boxes, watches, and paper. In each case, the stroboscope revealed problems that could not be seen and corrected without the flashing light that froze the machine’s motion.

Perhaps the most famous early use of the stroboscope was in a lawsuit between the Lever Brothers and Procter & Gamble on their competitive methods of making soap powder. High-speed, stroboscopic motion pictures provided visual proof that Lever Brothers’ methods were different from Procter & Gamble’s and the suit was dropped.

Edgerton never thought to reserve the strobe for purely technical subjects. By the mid-1930s, he was photographing everyday phenomena; golfers swinging at a ball, archers letting the arrow fly, tennis players hitting a serve, water running from a faucet, milk drops hitting a plate, and all sorts of creatures in flight, from bats to hummingbirds to insects.



Popular Interest: 1932 – 1941

In 1932, Edgerton was promoted to assistant professor at the Institute and he and his student and colleague, Kenneth J. Germeshausen, saw the first commercial model of their stroboscope hit the market.

During the late 1930s, Edgerton spent more and more time outside the laboratory. His photographs of stage shows, like the Follies, and sports events captured the imagination of news photographers. One photojournalist in particular, George Woodruff, worked closely with Edgerton. Woodruff helped to get the strobe accepted as an indispensable piece of the photojournalist’s camera kit. Below you’ll find photos of the Louis / Conn Fight, 1941.

When a photo taken with Edgerton’s strobe during a 1940 track meet was released over the wire, photographers and the public alike were amazed. Speedray photographs, as they were nicknamed, ushered a new era in sports photography.

One of Edgerton’s milk-drop photographs, titled Coronet, was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s first photography exhibition in 1937. That same year, he began designing studio strobes for Gjon Mili, who became a well-known photographer for Life magazine. At the request of Kodak, Edgerton set up a booth at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, complete with a baseball-shooting cannon that allowed visitors to take their own strobe pictures. In 1939, Edgerton also published Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra-High-Speed Photography, a collection of his photographs. It was an instant bestseller.

Then, in 1940, MGM invited Edgerton to make a stroboscopic high-speed motion picture with comedian Pete Smith. The ten-minute short, Quicker ’n a Wink, won an Oscar.

Milk Drop Coronet


Wartime Strobe: 1939 – 1945

Edgerton discussing the wartime use of the strobe

In the summer of 1939, Major George W. Goddard of the Army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) paid a call on Edgerton and his colleagues at the Strobe Lab. Goddard had been a pilot in the World War I and knew first-hand the value-and limitations of – aerial photography using flash bombs. He asked Edgerton if a strobe lamp could be built that would be powerful enough to take photographs at night from the height of one mile.

Doc rose to the challenge with his usual “let’s invent a way to do it” spirit, but immediately saw two problems: such equipment would weigh several tons and the huge flash tubes required probably would blow up on use. But Goddard knew that larger planes that could handle the weight were on the drawing board, so Edgerton went to work perfecting his quartz flash lamps. In April 1941, the first experimental unit-camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector was mounted in the bomb bay of a B-18 and tested over Boston. Further tests showed that the system worked well, but one significant problem still needed to be solved. Edgerton’s equipment took great nighttime photographs, but they often were not of the target area. Night navigation was difficult, especially over blacked-out enemy territory. So nighttime aerial photography did not find widespread use until late 1943, when it was coupled with radar.

Everything was in place, then, for the system’s most famous test. On the evening of June 5, 1944, the nighttime reconnaissance planes took off for Normandy. They were followed shortly by a flying army in C-47s, headed for the invasion of France. Photographs of the quiet nighttime landscape revealed that the enemy force would be taken completely by surprise. The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. It provided information that could be obtained in no other way.

Aerial night photography, airplanes - 1950s


EG&G the Company: 1947 Onwards

EG&G Nuclear Energy

The three colleagues and friends Harold Edgerton, Kenneth Germeshausen, and Herbert Grier became an incorporated partnership in 1947 at the request of the Atomic Energy Commission. Now known as EG&G, Inc., they designed and operated systems that timed and triggered nuclear bomb tests.

Edgerton and his colleagues realized that to take still pictures of such a huge release of light, they would have to make exposures of shorter duration than had even been imagined. To solve this problem, they invented a camera they called the “rapatronic” (for rapid electronic). When light from the bomb hit the photocell in the camera, it triggered a mechanism that opened and then cut off the exposure in as little as two microseconds. By 1950, EG&G had perfected their ultra-high-speed techniques. They designed a camera shutter that had no moving mechanical parts, making possible photographs with an exposure time of from four- to ten-millionths of a second.

Major H-bomb tests took place on Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific in 1952. Edgerton was there with his rapatronic camera, photographing the nuclear explosions from several miles away at the moment of detonation. It is important to note that all of his work is post-war: Doc did not photograph Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Edgerton published the first of his many articles in National Geographic magazine in 1947 entitled, “Hummingbirds in Action.” The article contained high-speed photographs that illustrated for the first time the wing movement and flight patterns of these tiny birds. During the 1940s and 1950s, Edgerton often transported his heavy strobes from MIT to Boston Garden events, where he used one of the early Kodak color films at the rodeo, 1947.

Underwater Exploration: 1953 – 1986

Edgerton was much in demand from the 1950s to the 1980s for underwater exploratory and archaeological expeditions as an expert in underwater photographic techniques and, later, in the use of side-scan sonar devices for discovering objects and geological information on and beneath lake beds and ocean floors.

In 1952, the National Geographic Society asked Edgerton to join them in underwater exploration, and Doc meet the leader of the expeditions, Jacques-Yves Cousteau who became a life-long friend. Cousteau co-developed the aqua-lung, and pioneered marine conservation. This meeting marked the beginning of Doc’s search for submerged ships, ancient cities, lost equipment, and little-known biological phenomena.

Edgerton started building underwater flashes and cameras for Cousteau, but soon realized the murky ocean waters would require some kind of sound system to augment his cameras. He developed a penetration sonar-and echo sounder he called a “pinger” – that emitted sound waves to the ocean floor. Echoes returning from the pinger indicated how close the camera was to the bottom. Edgerton invented the “boomer” in 1961 – an acoustic device similar to the pinger – that could locate objects lying on and beneath the ocean floor and deliver seismic provides of them. He used the boomer to find an H-bomb off the coast of Spain, search for the ancient Greek city of Helice (submerged about 373 B.C.), and map various ocean trenches.

In 1986, Edgerton and colleagues designed an elapsed-time photographic system that could take motion pictures of underwater events, using strobe lights for illumination. This system made it possible to photograph the movements of sand dollars, sea urchins, and other marine creatures whose movements are normally too slow to humans to see.

Submersible SOUCOUPE - Jacques Cousteau, 1959


Lifetime of Teaching: 1928 – 1987

Edgerton discussing teaching

Edgerton enjoyed considerable success in academic, industrial, photographic, and artistic communities. Throughout his colorful life, however, he continued to teach – his lifelong delight. From 1927 until his death, Edgerton was a permanent member of the MIT faculty: first as a research assistant (1927), then as instructor (1928), assistant professor (1932), associate professor (1938), full professor (1948), institute professor (1966), and institute professor emeritus (1968). Although retired in 1968, he continued to work in the MIT Stroboscopic Light Laboratory and to teach the freshman course in stroboscope photography.

At the heart of Doc’s work is his insatiable curiosity. It was this desire to know that made him such a memorable teacher. He inspired his students and his students inspired him. As early as 1932, he had already supervised thirteen theses, enlivened by his students’ research and discoveries.

Doc collaborated with others throughout his life. Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert Grier are his most notable, lifelong colleagues, but lab assistant Charlie Miller, wartime associates Charlie Wyckoff and Fred Barstow, and mechanical genius Bill MacRoberts are equally important. Doc also involved his students in his work, notably Kim Vandiver, Gus Kayafas, Marty Klein, and Peter Mui. From his earliest days on the faculty, Doc constantly worked with other professors at MIT, bouncing ideas around and trying out new strobes in new ways. Doc never stopped teaching at MIT and never stopped teaching in life. He was eager to share his inventions with businessmen, students, and members of social clubs, engineering societies, and the public. He showed off the strobe every chance he had, from the David Letterman show to Nebraska diners, from MIT classrooms to civic groups.

Doc’s work is marked by the lively give-and-take of collaborating with others and communicating the results. “Work hard… tell everyone everything you know… have fun.”

MIT Electrical Engineering Faculty - Harold E. Edgerton, 1935


Additional Reading

There are dozens of articles, books, and films about ‘Doc’ Edgerton and his work, ranging from popular articles in newspapers to complex technical papers. Although many of the books listed below are no longer in print, they can certainly be found second-hand and in local libraries.

A good place to start is the excellent biographical article, which includes a useful selective bibliography, written for the National Science Academy in 2005 by the director of the Edgerton Center at M.I.T., Kim Vandiver, with the collaboration of Pagan Kennedy.

Two publications associated with a recent MIT Museum exhibition celebrating Edgerton’s life and work are also to be recommended:

  • Joyce E. Bedi, “The Man Who Stopped Time,” American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 13 (Summer 1997): 34-41.
  • Roger R. Bruce (editor) et al., Seeing the Unseen: Dr. Harold E. Edgerton and the Wonders of Strobe Alley (Rochester, NY: The Publishing Trust of George Eastman House, distributed by MIT Press, 1994).

Edgerton’s iconic images are showcased in another popular book curated by his former student and long-time portfolio agent Gus Kayafas, of Palm Press, Inc.:

  • Gus Kayafas, Estelle Jussim and Harold E. Edgerton, Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987).

For those interested in acquiring a more in-depth technical understanding of Edgerton’s research, and perhaps seeking inspiration to replicate some of his techniques, a serious yet very accessible book is Edgerton’s textbook:

  • Harold E. Edgerton, Electronic Flash, Strobe, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992). The original edition was published in 1970. New material was added in 1979 and 1987. The 1992 version is the second printing of the 3rd edition.

Two older books written by Edgerton and former MIT President James Killian are considered key works:

  • Harold E. Edgerton and James R. Killian, Jr., Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra High-Speed Photography (Boston: Charles T. Branford Co., 1954). The first edition was published in 1939.
  • Harold E. Edgerton and James R. Killian, Jr., Moments of Vision: The Stroboscopic Revolution in Photography (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979).

Towards the end of his life Edgerton produced a book on sonar underwater imaging techniques that featured works by colleagues around the world — showcasing the long-ranging legacy of his early pioneering work in the field.

  • Harold E. Edgerton, Sonar Images (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1986).

Doc Edgerton has been featured as author and scientist in several National Geographic Magazine articles since his initial collaboration with the NGS began in the 1940s. Many of his projects are celebrated in the following article:

  • Erla Swingle, “‘Doc’ Edgerton: The Man Who Made Time Stand Still,” National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 172 (October 1987): 464-483.

Prepared by Claire Calcagno and Deborah Douglas

Edgerton books, "Electronic Flash, Strobe" (1970), "Moments of Vision" (1979)