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Edgerton, inventor, professor, dies at 86

By Katherine Shim

Harold E. "Doc" Edgerton SM '27, Institute professor emeritus of electrical engineering, whose work with stroboscopic light redefined photography, died on Thursday after suffering a heart attack at the MIT Faculty Club where he was having lunch. He was 86 years old.

Edgerton, who spent 60 years at the Institute both as a student and a professor, worked in the development of advanced sonar equipment and participated in various oceanographic expeditions. But he was foremost a pioneer in stroboscopic photography, which employs a repeatable short-duration flash. His work has been most practically applied in the modern electronic flash, now an everyday camera accessory.

He was popularly known for his stop-action photographs, such as his 1964 photograph of a bullet ripping through a playing card, and many of his photographs have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Boston Museum of Science. His photographs are notable in that each is a unique mixture of science and artistic beauty.

Work in stroboscopic


Edgerton first became interested in the use of the flash as a scientific tool while working on his doctoral thesis. Before this time, the flash picture had been regarded more as an object of curiosity than as a tool for capturing motion. Edgerton soon perfected the flash to make it more brilliant, faster, reliable, and practical for use.

Perhaps Edgerton's most notable contribution to high-speed motion picture photography was his development of the photographic technique in which an action is photographed at a rate of many flashes per second with an open shutter. Using this technique, exposures are made by strobe flashes on a continuously moving film.

During World War II, Edgerton served as technical representative for the Army Air Forces and devised a strobe system for nighttime aerial photography of ground targets and operations. Planes equipped with his apparatus photographed the coast of Normandy immediately before D-Day and were also used in Italy and the Far East.

After the war, Edgerton assumed major responsibilities in atomic bomb testing and worked to find greater commercial applications of stroboscopic photography. With two former students, Kenneth J. Germeshausen '31 and Herbert E. Grier '33, Edgerton formed EG&G Inc. in 1947 to carry out this aim. The company devised applications ranging from flashing lights for airplanes and lighthouses to strobe lights for copy machines.

Contributor to ocean research

Edgerton also became interested in oceanographic photography and did much to improve the designs of underwater cameras to withstand water pressure. One of his major contributions to oceanographic photography was his work with sonar and his development of side-scan sonar equipment, which produced profile images of objects on the ocean floor. This allowed researchers to better visualize the shape of objects on the ocean bottom.

In his work on oceanographic photography, Edgerton collaborated with the oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau beginning in 1953. The pair worked closely on numerous endeavors, including photographing the bottom of the five-mile deep Romanche Trench in the South Atlantic and locating various ancient wrecks.

In 1973, Edgerton helped locate the wreckage of the Civil War ironclad Monitor, which sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, NC, and in 1976 he participated in an unsuccessful attempt to solve the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland.

Role as professor

As a professor at MIT for nearly 60 years, Edgerton worked to influence and energize hundreds of students, and students, faculty, and staff alike celebrated him for his humor, informality, and caring.

Paul Penfield Jr. ScD '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, commented: "His strobe lab has been a haven for generations of students, who simultaneously learn, mature, and get infected with Doc's enthusiastic approach to science, engineering and life. Doc was always carrying around a pocketful of postcards with one of his famous photographs, to give to children (and those of us still children at heart)."

Born on April 6, 1903, in Fremont, NE, Harold Eugene Edgerton attended the University of Nebraska and received a bachelor's degree there in electrical engineering in 1925. He then joined the General Electric Co. in Schenectady, NY, and the next year entered MIT as a graduate student. After receiving an SM degree from the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1927 and an ScD in 1931, he was appointed to the faculty.

President Paul E. Gray '54 said in a statement: "Harold E. Edgerton is known to the world as the inventor of high speed photography and as a major figure in its many applications. He is known to MIT as a teacher of uncommon effectiveness and generosity and as a friend and mentor of the thousands of students, myself among them, who had the good fortune to be associated with him during the past 60 years. He has no peers here and he will be deeply missed."

Edgerton published four books: Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra High-Speed Photography (1939, in collaboration with James R. Killian Jr. '26), Electronic Flash, Strobe (1970), Moments of Vision (1979, with Killian) and Sonar Images (1986).

He is survived by his wife, Esther May; a daughter, Mary L. Dixon of Hickory, NC; a son, Robert F. Edgerton of Pontiac, MI; and two sisters, Margaret Robinson of Sarasota, FL, and Mary Ellen Pogue of Chevy Chase, MD.