An engineer and an artist, Dr Harold Edgerton’s high-speed photography revealed a world hidden in plain sight. Here, Avaunt looks at the inventive genius of the man known as Dr Flash.
Dr Harold Edgerton always insisted that he was simply an engineer, and yet he is responsible for some of the most enduring images of the 20th century. While a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Edgerton pioneered high-speed photography, pushing the boundaries of what could be captured on film. His simple, strikingly beautiful photographs – a golfer’s Archimedean swing, shot at 100 flashes per second, or the coronet created by a drop of milk – were the first to truly capture fleeting, unseen moments, instants frozen in time, and with them the imaginations of people around the world.
Like all great discoveries, Edgerton stumbled on the technology behind his high-speed photography by accident. During an experiment at MIT, Edgerton found that the overheating warning light on a rudimentary computer, blinking at 60 times a second, seemed to freeze the moving parts. Having realised the potential of the light for photography, Edgerton needed to rethink the photographic flash – at that time typically a one-use bulb that ignited a mixture of magnesium and potassium chloride. His electric version, the stroboscope, meant he could capture on film events that previously were too fast for existing technology to see.
Although he still used his equipment in the lab, investigating anything from synchronous motors to fluid dynamics, Edgerton also began to share his work publicly – his image from 1964 of an apple being pierced by a .30-calibre bullet, travelling at 2,800 feet per second, is perhaps his most famous. The bullet’s speed necessitated a flash duration of less than a millionth of a second – the photograph demonstrating not only Edgerton’s technical brilliance but, in its composition and colour, the aesthetic sensibility that ran through his work.
Edgerton’s technology was also used in the 1940s to study the first nanoseconds of a nuclear explosion, creating eerily beautiful images of a membranous fireball, and he developed underwater cameras and sophisticated sonar systems for the pioneering marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau. But it is his high-speed photography of everyday objects, and its ability to reveal something magical out of the mundane – a hidden world right before our eyes – that makes him a truly visionary engineer.