Nov 30, 2022

"How to make applesauce"

The father of high-speed photography

H

arold "Doc" Edgerton was a pioneer in the field of high-speed photography, using innovative techniques to capture the beauty and power of fast-moving objects. His work has been celebrated for its ability to reveal the hidden details of the world around us, and his photographs continue to be admired for their technical mastery and artistic vision.

Born in 1903 in Fremont, Nebraska, Edgerton received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska in 1926. After working for a few years as an electrical engineer, he enrolled in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned his PhD in 1933.

It was at MIT that Edgerton developed his passion for high-speed photography. He began experimenting with stroboscopes, or flashing lights, to seemingly freeze movements and illuminate moments in time. In the early days, camera shutter speeds were too slow to capture the likes of a bullet flying at 2,800 feet per second, but his stroboscopic flashes — a precursor to modern-day strobe lights — created bursts of light so short that a well-timed photograph, taken in an otherwise dark room, made it appear as if time had stood still. The results were mesmerizing and, often, messy. "We used to joke that that it took a third of a microsecond to take the picture, and all morning to clean up," recalled his former student and teaching assistant, J. Kim Vandiver in an interview with CNN.

Milk drop coronet
A drop of milk splashes and curves upwards to form an opalescent crown.

But the images produced were undeniable. The 1964 scene titled "How to make applesauce" takes on a serene, sculptural beauty as the disintegrating apple's skin burst open against a deep blue backdrop. Edgerton's artistic eye drew the attention of newspaper and magazine publications from around the world.

Harold Edgerton's famous bullet through apple photo
1964 image of a .30-caliber bullet ripping through an apple showed an otherwise unseeable moment in captivating detail.

Over the years, Edgerton and his students took a rifle to objects including bananas, balloons and playing cards. For Vandiver, the reason why the apple — along with a 1957 image of a splashing milk droplet — became one of Edgerton's defining photographs is, in part, its simplicity. "It catches your imagination... and you immediately understand what it is." he said.

Edgerton's work quickly gained attention, and he became known as the "father of the high-speed photography." His expertise was called upon for a variety of projects, including studying the flight of birds, analyzing the movements of athletes, and capturing the moments of impact in car crashes.

Jimmy Thompson golf swing
A series of strobes in rapid succession freezes a golf swing by Jimmy Thompson.

Many of his photographs were praised by the art world, noting his eye for compositional beauty and intentional lighting. But despite the plaudits, he was quoted as saying "Don't make me out to be an artist. I am an engineer. I am after the facts, only the facts."

Edgerton also made significant contributions to the field of electrical engineering. He developed the first practical underwater light, which was used in military and commercial diving, and he also worked on the development of sonar technology during World War II. Throughout his career, Edgerton received numerous awards and accolades for his work, including the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States. He continued to work and teach at MIT until his death in 1990, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most innovative photographers of all time.

Harold "Doc" Edgerton

Today, Edgerton's work remains a testament to the role photography can play in revealing the beauty and complexity of the world around us, and his legacy continues to inspire new generations of photographers and scientists to explore the boundaries of their fields. His hands-on approach lives on at MIT's Edgerton Center — established in his honor in 1992 — where every student is encouraged to take a bullet photograph of their own.

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