Harold Eugene Edgerton, Papa Flash

The topic of Cranbrook visitors has been a regular one in the Archives this winter as my colleague, Kevin Adkisson, prepares for his History of American Architecture: Cranbrook Visitors lectures. There have been many famous visitors to Cranbrook over the years, and while Kevin is focused on architects who came to the Academy of Art, many other interesting guests were associated with the Institute of Science.

The Institute has frequently welcomed scholars from near and far to present on the latest research in their field. These include paleoanthropologists, Mary and Louis S. B. Leakey; primatologist, Dian Fossey; archaeologist, J. Eric S. Thompson; father of ecology, Pierre Dansereau; biologist, Joseph S. Weiner, and professor of electrical engineering, Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the work of Dr. Edgerton, dubbed “Papa Flash” by Jacques Cousteau.

Poster for Harold E. Edgerton’s 1979 lecture Moments of Vision: An Inventor Speaks (P.19.011). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Edgerton, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented his lecture Seeing the Unseen at the Institute in 1950, and returned in 1979 to present Moments of Vision: an Inventor Speaks. His work was also included in an exhibition, Flash! The Invisible World Revealed in 1960. The Newsletter – Cranbrook Institute of Science of October 1979 reports that Edgerton invented the stroboscope, which made stop-action and high-speed photography possible.

The December 1960 CIS newsletter tells us that, “’stroboscope’ literally means ’whirling viewer’ and employs very rapid flashes from a strobostron, a gas-filled tube, in which light can be produced repeatedly by electrical discharges from condensers. A camera synchronized with the light can make photographs at speeds of less than one millionth of a second, stopping action which is much too fast for the human eye to see.”

Edgerton’s system of photography, first introduced in 1931, has revolutionized the way we see the world–and the way we see the moon! Edgerton adapted his invention to specialized instruments in many fields, including underwater photography, aerial reconnaissance, and nuclear-test measurement.

The Newsletter – Cranbrook Institute of Science, Vol. 49, No. 2. October 1979. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The stroboscope helped enable underwater photography, allowing us to see this otherwise unseen world. The CIS newsletter describes how “aquanauts” used his equipment to resolve underwater mysteries, such as finding the iron-clad Civil War vessel, Monitor, which was discovered off the North Carolina coast near Cape Hatteras, as well as searching for the Loch Ness monster. Edgerton also made ten voyages with Jacques Cousteau on the Calypso, and the 1960 newsletter reports that he had previously been on four deep sea explorations with Cousteau, capturing images of sea life as deep as four miles.

Edgerton’s association with the MIT began in 1926, when he entered as a graduate student, being awarded a Master of Science degree in 1927 and a Doctor of Science degree in 1931. He was appointed Professor of Electrical Engineering in 1934 and continued beyond his official retirement in 1977. His first public association with Cranbrook came in the December 1949 CIS newsletter, where his camera equipment’s ability to create photographic records of hummingbirds and bats in flight, circus performers in mid-air, and stroboscopic analysis of tennis and golf players was documented. Many of these images were displayed at the December 1960 photographic exhibition, which featured thirty years of Edgerton’s work, and included enlargements from his original negatives of ultra high-speed photography of the splash of a milk drop.

Cranbrook’s institutions have long played host to national and international leaders in science, the arts, and many other fields. It is wonderful that Edgerton shared the progress of his fascinating research and discoveries with the Institute of Science.

—Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Sources:
The Newsletter, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, December 1949.
The Newsletter, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Vol. 30, No. 4, December 1960.
The Newsletter, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Vol. 49, No. 2, October 1979.

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