Edgerton, Harold Eugene

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Harold Eugene Edgerton

Harold Edgerton (1903-1990) the inventor of the Stroboscopic flashbulb, created a revolutionary way of looking at the world. He was responsible for inventing a bulb that could flash rapidly in conjunction with a high-speed camera. Edgerton captured motion on high-speed film, producing some of the most expressive photographs that the artistic community had ever seen.

Early Life

Harold Eugene Edgerton was born on April 6, 1903, in Fremont, Nebraska. From a young age, Edgerton showed an interest in all things mechanical. As a young boy he got his first taste of electricity when he bought some old Ham Radio equipment from a friend. Using some items found around the house, he crafted his own antenna for the Ham equipment, and then wanted to take a picture of what he had done. The art of photography was a young science at the time, not to mention expensive. The first few photos Edgerton managed to take were rather devoid of life because he could not get enough light onto the scene. His interest in photography would stay with him throughout his life, and soon he would invent a device that would effectively banish the problems of photographic lighting.

Invented the Stroboscopic Bulb

Edgerton attended the University of Nebraska for his undergraduate studies, earning a degree in electrical engineering. He went on to work for General Electric in New York, and soon entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate studies. Edgerton received both his master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from MIT, and remained there to become a tenured professor.

While working with power generators, Edgerton noticed that when light would flash onto the spinning rotors, they appeared to stand still for a split second. The flash would illuminate one small moment in time, making everything seem to be at rest. This happy accident is what gave Edgerton the inspiration to create the first reusable flash bulb.

Edgerton created his first electric flash bulb in 1928. At the time, the technology was not available to create fluorescent lighting. The stroboscopic bulb that Edgerton invented contained mercury gas that emitted light when a pulse of high voltage electricity was passed through the tube itself. However, Edgerton switched from Mercury gas to Argon and Xenon, because these other gases provided just as much light as Mercury, and were easier to control while lasting for longer periods of time.

On January 14, 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, Edgerton approached a patent attorney and offered up his invention, called the Stroboscope, for a patent. Edgerton had no money, and told the attorney that he could not afford to pay for a patent. This man was so impressed by Edgerton's invention that he decided to put the patent forward for review immediately. Edgerton would go on to create a multitude of different devices, from the sonar that is used in deep sea diving to a bulb bright enough to illuminate the ground from 1500 feet in the air. However, the Stroboscope was the invention that would lead to Edgerton's continued success in the areas of both science and the arts.

Art Met Science

The Stroboscope bulb was soon being used in factories and plants all around the United States to gauge the revolution rates of fans and turbines that could only be seen if captured on film with this high frequency flash bulb. Edgerton set up a photo laboratory and experimented by taking high frequency pictures of his assistants and others doing things like swinging a golf club, throwing a baton high in the air, and jumping rope. He was able to capture every movement of the human being as well as the object on one piece of film, and thus created mosaics that captured not only the beginning and end of the action, but also the actions in the middle that moved too fast for slower light sources to capture. The stroboscopic bulb could be set to different intervals of flashing, and was sensitive enough to capture a millisecond of history. The bulb could make faster objects seem much slower, or could make them appear to be going in reverse. The bulb was a powerful invention, not only for artistic pursuits but also in the realm of scientific discovery.

Edgerton was asked to use his stroboscopic light to capture athletes in action at the Boston Garden indoor sports arena. This would be the first time that anyone outside of Edgerton or his assistants had seen the device work. Even the patent lawyer had not seen it. Edgerton and his assistants moved the Stroboscope into the arena and set it up to take pictures of the athletes while they performed.

This was a momentous occasion, not only for Edgerton and his new invention, but also for the art of photography. Before Edgerton had invented his bulb, the only way to get sufficient light to take a good photograph indoors was to use flash powder, a mixture of magnesium and other chemical substances. The powder was activated as soon as the camera shutter opened to expose the film. The resulting flash was bright, but dangerous to be near. The powder was actually set on fire, and burned out in the instant that the picture was taken. These flashes were powerful, but because of the chemicals used, there were worries about its danger to humans, specifically to the nervous system. The flash powder had to be held close to the photographic subject, so there was no escaping the burst of powder as the picture was taken.

The stroboscopic bulb changed all of this. It was safe to use at close range, did not interfere with the activities of the photographic subjects, and was bright enough for illumination both indoors and out. After Edgerton was finished capturing the athletes at the Boston arena, the newspapers raved about this new technology, proclaiming that Edgerton's “high speed graphic camera” was creating the photography of the future.

Edgerton himself believed that his pictures were records of events, and not just a picture in time. Edgerton wanted to reveal the hidden activities of nature, and through his Stroboscope was able to produce pictures that captured these actions very clearly. One of his most famous images is that of a milk droplet that splashes into a puddle of milk and creates a corona, or crown, above the puddle. He programmed his camera to flash in the milliseconds of this event. Edgerton also captured the images of a bullet penetrating an apple, a balloon, a light bulb and other objects. He was able to capture the very instant when the bullet entered and left the object. The resulting image showed just how the laws of nature worked during these kinds of events. Just like the milk splash, the pictures of the bullet piercing an apple showed that there was just as much of an impact at the entry point of the bullet as there was when the bullet exited the apple. Before this kind of photography, these images could not have been captured. Edgerton supplied scientists and artists with a way to explore the hidden world of “in-between,” where events could be seen from all points of view, and not just from before and after.

Wider Uses of the Stroboscopic Bulb

Edgerton's high-powered lights not only helped to illuminate the movements of athletes and bullets, but also served to light the territories of Germany and France during World War II. Edgerton was approached by the U.S. government and asked if his new invention would be powerful enough to illuminate the ground from above. Edgerton ran a test to verify the technology. The test involved flying a plane above Stonehenge in Britain, and flashing a light down on the ancient structure from 1500 feet above. A camera was situated at ground level, and was programmed to take a picture at the same time that the overhead bulb flashed. The resulting picture showed Stonehenge illuminated from above, just as if a beam of light from above was shining down on it. This proved that the flash bulbs could be used to illuminate enemy territory at ground level, and it provided helpful reconnaissance during night spy flights.

Edgerton received a U.S. Medal of Freedom for his work with the war effort. After the war ended, Edgerton used his knowledge of engineering to create a sonar version of his Stroboscope. He was able to use sound in the same way he used light, and gave deep water explorers the first tools that could be used to measure the depth of a body of water. The device itself was called the pinger, and is still used today to measure water depth. The pinger sonar was also used to locate shipwrecks on the bottom of the oceans, by sending down pulses of sound to identify differences of depth in the waters. Edgerton also invented the camera that took some of the first pictures of the Titanic when it was discovered on the ocean floor. The bulbs used in underwater sea diving were also Edgerton's creation.

Edgerton formed a friendship with the famous undersea explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau (1910-1997), and he would accompany Cousteau on many of his voyages beneath the waters, taking pictures of discoveries along the way. Edgerton had a passion for underwater photography, and developed tools to aid him in the taking of underwater pictures. Edgerton's moniker was “Papa Flash,” and it was an accurate one, because in many ways he was was the father of the modern flashbulb technology that is used today.


Edgerton was one of the most prolific inventors in history. His inventions greatly advanced the science of highspeed imagery, as well as the artistic world of photography, and earned him much fame and reputation in the artistic and scientific worlds. Through his discovery of the stroboscopic bulb, as well as its many uses and adaptations, Edgerton showed that the milliseconds of every activity could be captured clearly, and this opened up a realm of discovery that had to that point been unseen by the human eye.


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