Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton was an electrical engineer and began to take photographs as scientific experiments. In his first, he tried to produce a perfect coronet from a single drop of milk falling into liquid. To do this he invented the stroboscope – a device to produce short bursts of light. This allowed him to take split-second pictures of objects in motion which could not be seen by the human eye, including bullets and hummingbirds in flight, light bulbs shattering, and athletes in action. Some of his photographs had an exposure time of less than 1/10,000 of a second.
He was born in Fremont, Nebraska on April 6, 1903, the son of Mary Nettie Coe and Frank Eugene Edgerton, a direct descendant of Richard Edgerton, one of the founders of Norwich, Connecticut and a descendent of Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) of the Plymouth Colony and a passenger on the Mayflower. His father was a lawyer, journalist, author and orator and served as the assistant attorney general of Nebraska from 1911 to 1915. Harold grew up in Aurora, Nebraska. He also spent some of his childhood years in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln, Nebraska.
In 1925 he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he became a member of Acacia Fraternity. He earned an S.M. in electrical engineering from MIT in 1927. Edgerton used stroboscopes to study synchronous motors for his Sc.D. thesis in electrical engineering at MIT, awarded in 1931. He credited Charles Stark Draper with inspiring him to point stroboscopes at everyday objects: the first was a stream of water coming out of a faucet.
In 1937 he began a lifelong association with photographer Gjon Mili, who used stroboscopic equipment, particularly a “multiflash” strobe light, to produce strikingly beautiful photographs, many of which appeared in Life Magazine. This strobe light could flash up to 1 million times a second. Edgerton was a pioneer in strobe photography, subsequently using the technique to capture images of balloons during their bursting, a bullet during its impact with an apple, or tracking of a devil stick motion, as only a few examples. He was awarded a bronze medal by the Royal Photographic Society in 1934, and the National Medal of Science in 1973.
His work was instrumental in the development of side-scan sonar technology, used to scan the sea floor for wrecks. Edgerton worked with the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, by first providing him with underwater stroboscopes, and then by using sonar to discover the Britannic. Edgerton participated in the discovery of the American Civil War battleship USS Monitor. While working with Cousteau, he acquired the nickname he is still known by in photographic circles, “Papa Flash”.
In addition to having the scientific and engineering acumen to perfect strobe lighting commercially, Edgerton is equally recognized for his visual aesthetic: many of the striking images he created in illuminating phenomena that occurred too fast for the naked eye adorn art museums worldwide.
He was appointed full professor in electric engineering at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1948. He was especially loved by MIT students for his willingness to teach and his kindness: “The trick to education,” he said, “is to teach people in such a way that they don’t realize they’re learning until it’s too late.” His last undergraduate class, taught during fall semester 1977, was a freshman seminar titled “Bird and Insect Photography.” One of the graduate student dormitories at MIT carries his name. Edgerton’s work was featured in an October 1987 National Geographic Magazine article entitled, “Doc Edgerton: the man who made time stand still.”
Harold Edgerton died, January 4, 1990 in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 86. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.