The world knew him for his splashing milk-drop, scientists were indebted to him for giving them a window on the invisible, generations of MIT students looked to him for inspiration, but there’s so much more to learn about the man everybody called “Doc.”
Flashes of Inspiration explores the extraordinary ingenuity of Harold Edgerton through historic photographs, artifacts (including his cameras and lamps), and reproductions from his laboratory notebooks. The materials of the exhibition are drawn from the MIT Museum and the Institute Archives and Special Collections. The exhibition also features interactive displays that allow visitors to stop time, as Doc did, with a stroboscopic flash, or explore in greater depth the man and his photographs.
Born in Fremont, Nebraska, Harold “Doc” Edgerton (1903–1990) began his graduate studies at MIT in 1926. He became a professor of electrical engineering at MIT in 1934. In 1966, he was named Institute Professor, MIT’s highest honor.
With his development of the electronic stroboscope, Edgerton set into motion a lifelong course of innovation centered on a single idea—making the invisible visible. An inveterate problem-solver, Edgerton succeeded in photographing phenomena that were too bright or too dim or moved too quickly or too slowly to be captured with traditional photography.
In the early days of his career, Edgerton’s subjects were motors, running water and drops splashing, bats and hummingbirds in flight, golfers and footballers in motion, his children at play. By the time of his death at the age of 86, Edgerton had developed dozens of practical applications for stroboscopy, some that would influence the course of history.
The strides that Edgerton made in night aerial photography during World War II were instrumental to the success of the Normandy invasion and, for his contribution to the war effort, Doc was awarded the Medal of Freedom. During the Cold War, Edgerton and his partners at EG&G (Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier) made it possible to document nuclear explosions, an advance of incalculable scientific significance. In the last three decades of his life, Edgerton concentrated on sonar and underwater photography, illuminating the depths of the ocean for undersea explorers such as Jacques Cousteau, who dubbed his good friend “Papa Flash.”
Doc’s genius for revealing slices of time to the naked eye also engaged the public imagination. In part, this had to do with his astute choice of subject matter: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, the acrobats of the Moscow Circus, British tennis star Gussie Moran. But Doc’s most famous study—and possibly his favorite—the milk-drop coronet, transcended its simple subject. The image, formed by the splash of a drop of milk, not only introduced the poetry of physics into popular culture, but forever altered the visual vocabulary of photography and science.