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Strobe photography

May 21, 2002

A public radio commentary

I know of no engineer who's changed the way we see the world as much as Harold Edgerton. It's unlikely you recognize his name, but because of him we carry in our minds an image of a milk drop splashing on a plate, or of a bullet piercing an object.

Edgerton invented the electronic flash used in photography. He's best known for using this flash to pioneer strobe photography to freeze time, and capture motions that occur in a fraction of second.

He started out by wanting to photograph only one thing: A motor. While doing research in 1931 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he needed to see how a motor flexed as it rotated. Of course, a regular camera showed only a blur because in the time it took to open and close the shutter the motor had rotated hundreds of times. So, instead Edgerton darkened the room, opened the shutter permanently, and then exposed the film quickly with his flash.

In that moment, his career changed. The crystal clear, sharp photographs captured his imagination. He said once, "It shows you what's going on. There's no argument when you get through. No theory. It's the real world." For Edgerton, the strobe made the world intelligible, even simple. No longer did he study motors, but instead turned his camera toward the world. For the next sixty years he photographed everything he could, showing people things they'd never seen before.

He refined his flash unit until he could capture something happening in a millionth of a second. He froze the moment when a bat dented a baseball. He captured for the first time in mid-flight the wings of a hummingbird. And in perhaps his most famous photo he caught a drop of milk splashing off a table.

Although these images are indelibly impressed in our minds, Edgerton's strobe photography was serious scientific work. He once settled a lawsuit between two soap makers. One claimed the other had stolen their method for making soap power. Edgerton showed that while the two methods looked alike in motion, when frozen in time they were very different. In World War II he developed a special flash system to photograph the Normandy coast immediately before D-Day, giving vital reconnaissance to U.S. forces. And he developed a method to capture how the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb expanded and collapsed. Then he worked with Jacques Costeau to build a flash system for underwater photography, using it to locate undersea wrecks.

Today, of course, Edgerton is best remembered as an artist. There is no serious collection of photographs that doesn't contain one of his strobe photos. Yet, however anonymous, his influence as an engineer is still felt. From the flash on your camera, to the flash that you see in a photocopier.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises