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January 10 | 1990 | Tech Talk | Search | MIT News | Comments | MIT


MIT Loses a Colorful, Beloved Professor

                   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 

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, 

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 

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 

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 

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.

January 10 | 1990 | Tech Talk | Search | MIT News | Comments | MIT