Legends of Kendall Square: Doc Edgerton
With all that happens so quickly in life, Dr. Harold “Doc” Edgerton made his name by bringing the fastest-moving things on earth to a dead halt. His teams developed the technology to literally stop a bullet in front of your eyes, synchronizing flash photography with the exact moment of impact, the moment of truth—when the bullet was passing through an apple, a playing card, or empty space.
MIT has posted some of his pre-World War II images online. The website of the school’s Edgerton Center also features a remembrance published by the National Academy of Sciences. And here is a blow-up of the inset 1959 self-portrait, used with permission of the Naylor Collection.
Edgerton was born in 1903 and raised in Aurora, Nebraska. Throughout his career, he was fascinated by stroboscopes and their ability to create intense flashes of light that, properly synchronized with film in a camera, could produce wonderfully detailed, high-resolution action photos—of, say, a gymnast doing a flip across several frames of film. The technology enabled new studies of physiology and the solution of previously baffling problems. Edgerton’s desire to learn, to discover, and to experiment led to a life filled with creativity and inestimable industry.
As a graduate student at MIT, he developed the technology to “see” high-speed machinery at work. He created night-vision imaging systems with the Defense Department during World War II and enhanced underwater imaging of the ocean floor in consultation with Jacques Cousteau and the National Geographic Society. He spent a good bit of energy on sports photography—boxing, golf, football, and tennis, in particular. His images, with their compelling revelations about how the human body moves, have helped and haunted athletes for years.
In 1947, he founded EG&G Inc. with two partners, Kenneth J. Germeshausen and Herbert E. Grier. The firm expanded almost exponentially over many years to become a “family of companies” numbering in the dozens—all centered on technology’s use in explaining the world (and universe) that we inhabit.
Harold Edgerton was a true Renaissance Man. He was an accomplished guitarist and singer, as well as, arguably, one of the most remarkable fine artists in his primary medium, photography. Some of his images are icons of art. They are images of the unseeable, seen. As if by magic, Edgerton’s team brought invisible events into view—and the wonder they provoke is ineffable.
Edgerton’s contemporaries and mentors—Edwin Land, George Eastman, John Hadland, to name just three—all had deep respect and great enthusiasm for his work. They sought to aid, abet, and even compete with him to more rapidly develop the technologies he’d helped pioneer. Edgerton wisely stayed deeply ensconced in his science, and MIT made sure that he had the laboratory facilities, lecture halls, and exhibit or experimentation space that would allow him to explore endlessly. It was no mistake that Land set up his own company—Polaroid—across the street from MIT in Tech Square. The vibrant back-and-forth between Edgerton’s labs and Land’s was a veritable engine of invention, each man using his company to commercialize technologies that could be used in science, medicine, industry, and even the arts.
I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Land and his team, in concert with, and with admiration for, Dr. Edgerton’s team, as well as Hadland’s team from England, which pushed much of the same technology ahead in other parts of the world. It was the most exciting time one could imagine!
Harold Edgerton passed away in 1990, leaving a legacy of positive energy at the Hamilton Trust, at MIT, where his archives are kept, and at the many offshoots of EG&G. He also left us with a new understanding—through our own eyes—of the marvels of nature and science.
He said, “Don’t make me out to be an artist. I am after the facts, only the facts. In many ways, unexpected results are what have most inspired my photography.”