April 6, 1903–January 4, 1990
BY J. KIM VANDIVER AND PAGAN KENNEDY
HAROLD (“DOC”) EDGERTON, born in Fremont, Nebraska, in 1903, transformed the strobe from an obscure technology to a fixture of American life. He made flashing light cheap and portable, and found endless applications for it, from the airport runway to the office copy machine. But despite his importance as an innovator, Edgerton is best known for the photographs he took. His images have become icons of the twentieth century: the drop of milk exploding into a crown, a bullet hovering beside an apple, an atomic blast caught the instant before it mushroomed, a smudge that might have been the flipper of the Loch Ness monster. His strobe photographs illustrated scientific phenomena in a way that was instantly understandable to millions of people. Later in his career he developed sonar tools that revolutionized marine archeology, again using images to explore the unknown.
From the 1930s on, Edgerton was the go-to man for anyone who needed a stroboscopic solution. Niels Bohr, golfer Densmore Shute, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Colonel George Goddard, and a parade of other notables stopped by his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Faced with many requests, Edgerton made key contributions to a variety of fields and garnered dozens of awards: