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Harold Eugene Edgerton
Born April 6, 1903 (1903-04-06)
Fremont, Nebraska
Died January 4, 1990 (1990-01-05)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fields Engineering
Institutions Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Known for Stroboscope
For the police officer see Harry Edgerton

Harold Eugene "Doc" Edgerton (April 6, 1903 – January 4, 1990) was a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is largely credited with transforming the stroboscope from an obscure laboratory instrument into a common device. For example; today, the electronic flash is completely associated with the field of photography.




Early years

He was born in Fremont, Nebraska on April 6, 1903, the son of Mary Nettie Coe and Frank Eugene Edgerton,[1][2] a direct descendant of Richard Edgerton, one of the founders of Norwich, Connecticut and a descendent of Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) of the Plymouth Colony and a passenger on the Mayflower. His father was a lawyer, journalist, author and orator and served as the assistant attorney general of Nebraska from 1911 to 1915. Harold grew up in Aurora, Nebraska. He also spent some of his childhood years in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln, Nebraska.


In 1925 he received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he became a member of Acacia Fraternity.[3]. He earned an S.M. in electrical engineering from MIT in 1927. Edgerton used stroboscopes to study synchronous motors for his Sc.D. thesis in electrical engineering at MIT, awarded in 1931. He credited Charles Stark Draper with inspiring him to point stroboscopes at everyday objects: the first was a stream of water coming out of a faucet.


In 1937 he began a lifelong association with photographer Gjon Mili, who used stroboscopic equipment, particularly a "multiflash" strobe light, to produce strikingly beautiful photographs, many of which appeared in Life Magazine. This strobe light could flash up to 120 times a second. Edgerton was a pioneer in strobe photography, subsequently using the technique to capture images of balloons during their bursting, a bullet during its impact with an apple, or tracking of a devil stick motion, as only a few examples. He was awarded a bronze medal by the Royal Photographic Society in 1934, and the National Medal of Science in 1973.

He was a cofounder of the company EG&G, with Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert Grier, in 1947. EG&G became a prime contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission and had a major role in photographing and recording nuclear tests for the United States through the fifties and sixties. For this role he developed the Rapatronic camera, which was supplied by EG&G.

His work was instrumental in the development of side-scan sonar technology, used to scan the sea floor for wrecks. Edgerton worked with the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, by first providing him with underwater stroboscopes, and then by using sonar to discover the Britannic. Edgerton participated in the discovery of the American Civil War battleship USS Monitor. While working with Cousteau, he acquired the nickname he is still known by in photographic circles, "Papa Flash".

In addition to having the scientific and engineering acumen to perfect strobe lighting commercially, Edgerton is equally recognized for his visual aesthetic: many of the striking images he created in illuminating phenomena that occurred too fast for the naked eye adorn art museums worldwide. In 1940 his high speed stroboscopic short film, "Quicker'n a Wink" won an Oscar.[4]

He was appointed full professor in electric engineering at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1948 [5]. He was especially loved by MIT students for his willingness to teach and his kindness: "The trick to education," he said, "is to teach people in such a way that they don't realize they're learning until it's too late." His last undergraduate class, taught during fall semester 1977, was a freshman seminar titled "Bird and Insect Photography." One of the graduate student dormitories at MIT carries his name.

Edgerton's work was featured in an October 1987 National Geographic Magazine article entitled, "Doc Edgerton: the man who made time stand still."


After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, he married Esther May Garrett[6] in 1928. She was born in Hamilton County, Nebraska on Sept. 8, 1903 and died on March 9, 2002 in Charlestown, South Carolina. She received a bachelor's degree in mathematics, music and education from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

A skilled pianist and singer, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music and taught in public schools in Aurora, Nebraska and Boston. During their marriage they had three children: William, Robert, and Mary Lou.

His sister, Mary Ellen Edgerton, was the wife of L. Welch Pogue (1899 – 2003) a pioneering aviation attorney and Chairman of the old Civil Aeronautics Board.

David Pogue, a technology writer, journalist and commentator, is his great nephew.


He died on January 4, 1990 at Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 86 and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.[7]


  • Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra High-Speed Photography (1939, with James R. Killian Jr.)
  • Electronic Flash, Strobe (1970), Moments of Vision (1979, with Mr. Killian)
  • Sonar Images (1986, with Mr. Killian)
  • A collection of his photographs, Stopping Time, was published in 1987 by Harry N. Abrams.


On July 3, 1990, in an effort to memorialize his accomplishments, several Aurora community members decided to construct a "Hands-On" science center. It was designated as a "teaching museum," that would preserve Doc's work and artifacts, as well as feature the "Explorit Zone" where people of all ages could participate in hands-on exhibits and interact with live science demonstrations. After five years of private and community-wide funding, as well as individual investments by Doc's surviving family members, the Edgerton Explorit Center was officially dedicated on September 9, 1995.

External links


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Acacia Fraternity. "Acacia Fraternity: Notable Acacians". Retrieved 2008-10-30.  
  4. ^ "Popular Interest: 1932 – 1941 « Harold "Doc" Edgerton". 2009-11-28. Retrieved 2009-11-28.  
  5. ^ Bruce Bernard. "Le Livre du Siècle" Editions Phaidon. 2002
  6. ^
  7. ^ "H. E. Edgerton, 86, Dies. Invented Electronic Flash.". New York Times. January 5, 1990. Retrieved 2008-04-05. "Harold E. (Doc) Edgerton, professor emeritus of electrical measurements at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose invention of the electronic flash expanded the scope of photography, died yesterday after a heart attack at the institute faculty club, where he was having lunch. He was 86 years old and lived in Cambridge, Mass."  


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