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 still more to learn about the man everybody called "Doc."
Flashes of Inspiration: The Work of Harold Edgerton, an interactive exhibition celebrating the life and work of MIT legend Harold "Doc" Edgerton (1903-1990), opens with a free public preview on Saturday, Sept. 26 from noon-5pm. The exhibition is a long-term installation and has no scheduled closing date.
Curated by Joyce Bedi of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, Flashes of Inspiration explores the extraordinary ingenuity of Harold Edgerton through historic photographs, artifacts and reproductions from his laboratory notebooks. All materials are from MIT Museum's Historical Collections. The exhibition also features interactive elements that allow visitors to stop time, as Doc did, with a stroboscopic flash, or explore in greater depth the man and his photographs.
With his development of the electronic stroboscope, Dr. Edgerton set into motion a lifelong course of innovation centered on a single idea -- making the invisible visible. An inveterate problem-solver, Dr. 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, Dr. Edgerton's subjects were running water and drops splashing, bats and hummingbirds in flight, golfers and footballers in motion, his children at play. But by the time of his death at the age of 86, Dr. Edgerton had developed dozens of practical applications for stroboscopy, some that would influence the course of history.
The strides that Dr. 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, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom. During the Cold War, Dr. Edgerton and his partners at EG&G made it possible to document nuclear explosions, an advance of incalculable scientific significance. In the last three decades of his life, he 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.
Ms. Bedi has also curated a companion exhibition across campus at Strobe Alley on the fourth floor of Building 4, the center of Doc's stroboscopic research at MIT. Never Stop Learning: The Life and Legacy of Harold Edgerton features artifacts and photographs illustrating Doc's life and work and explores the work of the Edgerton Center artists and scientists whom he has inspired.
Flashes of Inspiration and Never Stop Learning were made possible by a generous grant from the Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation and the support of the Council for the Arts at MIT.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 23, 1998.