Published by the MIT News Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
MIT Loses a Colorful, Beloved Professor A memorial service at MIT is being planned for Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton who died suddenly Thursday, Jan. 4, after suffering a heart attack at the MIT Faculty Club where he was having lunch. He was 86 years old. Dr. Edgerton, whose genius transformed the strobe light from a laboratory curiosity into an important tool for science, industry and photography, was Institute Professor emeritus and professor emeritus of electrical measurements in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He had been a member of the MIT faculty since 1932. To one and all, he was known simply as Doc. Dr. Paul E. Gray, president of MIT and a former student of Professor Edgerton's, issued this 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." An internationally eminent electrical engineer, Dr. Edgerton, who was born in 1903, gained international fame as a deep-sea explorer and marine archaeologist and for his applications of sonar technology to geology and archaeology. There is scarcely a field of engineering and science that does not rely upon stroboscopic light instrumentation for basic data. In the study of particle physics, for example, much of the present day knowledge comes from the study of photographs made with flash lamps. Dr. Edgerton was a founding partner of EG&G, Inc., of Wellesley, Mass. (formerly Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier), a corporation specializing in electronic technology. He also helped organize and build the New England Aquarium in Boston and was one of its trustees, as well as a trustee of the Boston Museum of Science. It was as a photographer of the "unseen" that Dr. Edgerton was best known to the general public. Millions of people have seen his stop-action photos, which have frozen the rapidly fluttering wings of a hummingbird, "stopped" a bullet as it shattered a light bulb or revealed the power and grace that underlie athletic competition. A collection of his pictures was published in 1939 in Flash! Seeing the Unseen with High Speed Photography, a book Dr. Edgerton co- authored with James R. Killian Jr. A second edition appeared in 1954 during Dr. Killian's tenure as president of MIT. In 1979 they collaborated again in preparing Moments of Vision, the Stroboscopic Revolution in Photography (MIT Press). Dr. Edgerton's technical book, Electronic Flash, Strobe, appeared in 1970 with a paperback edition in 1979 (MIT Press). Dr. Killian died Jan. 29, 1988. Throughout a career that spanned nearly half a century, Professor Edgerton remained simply "Doc" to hundreds of students, faculty and staff at MIT who celebrated him for the warmth and concern he displayed for his fellow human beings. Countless students found support and understanding in the humor and informality that always marked encounters with Doc Edgerton. Hundreds have become better engineers because of the stimulation of his teaching, an activity he continued after his official retirement in 1968. Accessibility to students was a hallmark of Professor Edgerton. His office door was always open and although he might tell a visitor that he had "just five microseconds," he would spend hours with students, especially freshmen, sharing the excitement of a new experiment. Professor and Mrs. Edgerton, who survives him, often entertained students at their Cambridge apartment where a strobe light was used to flash a welcome at the door. He was born in Fremont, Neb., on April 6, 1903, and grew up in Aurora, Neb. While in high school, Professor Edgerton went to work as a janitor, meter reader, coal handler and lineman for the local power company. He planned to make a career in the power industry. After graduating from the University of Nebraska with a degree in electrical engineering, in 1925, he joined General Electric Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., for a year. At the urging of his father, a lawyer and newsman who was well-traveled and had a high regard for the northeast and its academic institutions, he went to MIT for graduate work. He received a master's degree in 1927 and became a research assistant in the then Department of Electrical Engineering. He earned his ScD in 1931 and was appointed to the faculty the next year. It was while working on his doctoral thesis that Professor Edgerton first turned to stroboscopic photography. He needed to determine the exact position of the armature of the synchronomous motor he was studying. Professor Edgerton rigged a mercury vapor lamp so that it would flash at the same speed as the rotating armature. He succeeded in taking excellent pictures of less than 10 microseconds duration. The first flash picture-using a spark-had been made in 1851, very early in the history of photography, but the technique had been treated as a curiosity until Edgerton came along. Captivated by the success of the armature picture, Dr. Edgerton and one of his students, Kenneth J. Germeshausen-both enthusiastic amateur photographers- began making still and motion pictures of all kinds of objects in rapid motion. Edgerton suggested that they try to find industrial applications for the method. Another student, Herbert E. Grier, joined them and thus was born the firm of Edgerton, Germeshausen & Grier. One of their first jobs was a stroboscopic analysis of operations in a paper mill. Edgerton and his associates developed flash lamps that were more brilliant, faster and more reliable, and learned how to blow glass in the process. They solved complex circuitry problems and developed new components. Dr. Edgerton provided equipment and worked with Gjon Mili, who had been a student at MIT, in making the first of many pictures for which Mili became famous when they appeared in Life magazine. Dr. Edgerton also made many advances in high-speed motion picture techniques. He devised a system by which action is photographed at a rate of many flashes a second with an open shutter. The exposures are made by strobe flashes on a continuously moving film without the need for stopping the film. During World War II, Dr. Edgerton was asked to devise a strobe system for night-time aerial photography of ground targets and operations. He developed the necessary apparatus and traveled to Italy and England to supervise its installation and testing. It was used effectively in the Normandy invasion in 1944. Germeshausen and Grier, during that time, worked for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. They developed the high-speed strobe circuitry used for triggering the atomic bomb. After the war, Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier incorporated and assumed major responsibilities for bomb tests. The company developed many kinds of specialized strobes, such as flashing lights for airplanes and lighthouses. Its high-powered strobes were used to pump light into the first ruby laser. The strobes also were adapted for office copying machines and the printing industry. The company eventually broadened its activities into a number of electronic areas. Dr. Edgerton was vice president from 1947 to 1954, then chairman of the board until 1964 and honorary chairman until 1975. Dr. Edgerton became interested in oceanographic photography in 1936 when a Princeton University professor asked him for a flash lamp for making pictures of fish at great depths near Bermuda. The flash worked, but the camera case leaked under the water pressure. Edgerton proceeded to improve the design of the camera. It first was used in 1937 to make pictures from a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) research vessel. Since then he has developed cameras and strobe lights and made pictures for numerous expeditions. In 1952, when the National Geographic Society asked Dr. Edgerton to develop an underwater camera for Jacques Cousteau, the MIT professor began a collaboration with the famous French explorer that continued for many years. One of their first accomplishments was to make pictures at the bottom of the five-mile deep Romanche Trench in the South Atlantic. The problem of how to determine the position of a camera near the ocean bottom led Dr. Edgerton to devise special sonar systems. His pioneering work with side-scan sonar included development of equipment that could reveal not only the existence of objects on the ocean bottom, but also their shapes. With such apparatus, Dr. Edgerton and Cousteau explored parts of the Mediterranean. The crew's nickname for Dr. Edgerton was "Papa Flash." They located the Britannic, a hospital ship sunk by a mine in the Aegean Sea during World War I, and various ancient wrecks. With the same group, he made a successful archaeological survey in Lake Titicaca, near the Inca Temple of the Sun. With Robert Marx, Dr. Edgerton made a survey of the sunken city of Port Royal in Jamaica, destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1692. With the Duke of Argyll he searched off Scotland for a Spanish Armada galleon. On the Russian oceanographic ship Akademic Kurchatov he made pictures of the geologically significant Atlantic Fracture Zone. From the WHOI vessel Chain he made a sonar survey along the shores of Thera, the Aegean Island believed by some to have been Plato's lost Atlantis. He took part in several unsuccessful searches in the Gulf of Corinth for the lost city of Helice and for wreckage from the Battle of Lepanto. In 1973, Dr. Edgerton helped find the remains of the Civil War ironclad Monitor, which sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras. The "cheese-box-on-a-raft" profile of the Monitor was picked out from the many wrecks on the bottom off Hatteras using a special sonar developed by Dr. Edgerton-a side-scan sonar- that produced a profile image, rather than an image that looked straight down from the surface. Beginning in 1971, he loaned underwater cameras for-and later personally participated with his sonar in-an attempt to solve the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, working with Robert H. Rines, Boston lawyer and MIT alumnus, and with several of his former students whose businesses are concerned with underwater exploration. Dr. Edgerton's main interest was teaching electrical engineering and working in the laboratories along "Strobe Alley," the MIT corridor outside his office. Adorning the corridor walls are dozens of his high-speed photographs together with various artifacts from his research. Dr. Edgerton, since 1966, has held the title of Institute Professor, a rank MIT reserves for scholars of special distinction. In 1973, MIT established a $900,000 fund in the names of Dr. Edgerton and his wife to support research by younger faculty members and students. In addition, the MIT Provost established an annual $5,000 award to a junior faculty member in Dr. Edgerton's honor. The MIT Sea Grant Program's research vessel is named the Edgerton. In 1983, MIT dedicated the five-story EG&G Education Center, designed for teaching and conference purposes, in honor of Professor Edgerton and his wife, Esther, as well as Pauline and Kenneth Germeshausen and Dorothy and Herbert Grier. Their gifts provided virtually all of the funding for the center. Dr. Edgerton gave the first lecture in the hall bearing his name on a subject of which he was an unquestioned authority, the "History of Strobe Photography." Dr. Edgerton was married in 1928 to Esther May Garrett. They had been childhood friends in Aurora, Neb. They have two children, Mrs. Mary L. Dixon of Hickory, N.C., and Robert F. Edgerton of Pontiac, Mich. Other survivors are two sisters, Margaret Robinson of Sarasota, Fla., and Mary Ellen Pogue of Chevy Chase, Md., and seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Dr. and Mrs. Edgerton lived in Cambridge. He was the author of nearly 150 technical articles and a member of a number of organizations. In 1986 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of ultra high speed photography. The patent for the specific invention cited, "Stroboscope," was issued Aug. 16, 1949. His most recent major awards, in 1988, were the National Geographic Society Centennial Award and the National Medal of Technology. His other awards and honors included: Certificate of Appreciation from the War Department; Citation for Operation Sandstone, University of California, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory; Medal of the Royal Photographic Society of London, 1936; Modern Pioneers Award, National Association of Manufacturers, 1940; Potts Medal, Franklin Institute, 1941; Medal of Freedom, 1946; University of Nebraska, Hon. D. Eng., 1948; Master of Photography, Photographers Association of America, 1949; Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, National Press Photographic Association, 1949; U.S. Camera Achievement Gold Medal Award, 1951; Photography Magazine Award, 1952; Franklin L. Burr Prize, National Geographic Society, 1953; Progress Medal Award, Photographic Society of America, 1955; 75th Anniversary Citation, Photographers Association of America, 1955; Progress Award, Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers, 1959; George W. Harris Achievement Award, Photographers Association of America, 1959; N.E. Engineer of the Year Award, Engineering Societies of New England, 1959. Other awards and achievements included: MIT, Gordon Y Billard Award (outstanding contribution to students and MIT), 1962; E.I. duPont Gold Medal Award, Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers, 1962; Industrial Photographers Association of America's Man of the Year Award, 1963; Silver Progress Medal, Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, 1964; Morris E. Leeds Award, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 1965; Technical Achievement Award, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1965; Richardson Medal, Optical Society of America, 1968; Eta Kappa Nu Eminent Member Award, 1968; John Oliver LaGorce Gold Medal, National Geographic Society, 1968. Doane College (Crete, Nebraska) Hon LL.D., 1969; University of South Carolina (Columbia) Hon. LL.D., 1969; Alan Gordon Memorial Award, S.P.I.E., 1969; Albert A. Michelson Medal, Franklin Institute, 1969; University of Nebraska Distinguished Service Award, 1972; NOGI Award, Underwater Society of America, 1973; Holley Medal (first time jointly awarded: K. Germeshausen), American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1973; National Medal of Science, 1973; Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Oceanography Coordinating Committee, 1974 Award; Lockheed Award for Marine Science and Engineering, Marine Technology Society, 1978. His memberships included: Academy of Applied Science, Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Boston Camera Club (Hon.). Eta Kappa Nu (Eminent Member), Marine Technology Society, Boston Museum of Science, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences. New England Aquarium, Photographers Association of New England, Society of Photographic Engineers, Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers (Hon.), Sigma Tau, Sigma Xi, the Explorers Club, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Photographic Society of America, Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, and the Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers.