Saturday, 7 June 2014

How the inventor of strobe photography gave D-Day the go-ahead

© Harold Edgerton Archive, MIT. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery



How do you convince a World War Two pilot to take an aerial

photo rather than drop a bomb? You demonstrate the powerful flash

they will be using by sunburning a tattoo onto their chests of

course — preferably a tattoo of their girlfriend’s name.

This is how MIT legend, professor of electrical engineering and

inventor of strobe, sonar and deep sea photography Harold “Doc”

Edgerton approached the predicament when looking to trial a

photographic system that would be the key to proving 6 June, 70

years ago today, was the right time to launch the D-Day Normandy


“He was developing this gigantic strobe, covering one square

mile, when people were becoming scared about D-Day plans being

being leaked by German sympathisers,” Gus Kayafas, Edgerton’s

longtime assistant, friend and a photographer in his own right,

told “They wanted to photograph at night to see

surreptitious troop movements around Calais and two other

locations. His photos showed in fact they weren’t amassing


Edgerton had a huge part to play in the day that changed the

course of history. But Kayafas, founder of Press Palm, through

which he has brought some of the Edgerton’s most iconic artworks to

London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery, describes “Doc” as a humble and

generous man, whose work was driven always from the innate

curiosity of a born scientist.

Edgerton began at MIT in 1926, studying synchronous motors,

before earning his PhD in 1931. It was during this time, while

working with founder of defence contractors Raytheon Vannevar Bush,

that Edgerton noted something that would spark a lifelong

experiment. Vannevar had invented a computer used to solve partial

differentiation, Kayafas explains, and when it overheated it

started flashing at 60 cycles per second. “The other scientist said

‘oh shit we have to wait for this thing to cool down,’ but Edgerton

noticed it stop the motor. That was what he was about — stopping

and looking. He never once had an experiment — he always had

experiences. He knew that it was very important, particularly at

MIT where everyone was smart — too smart for their own good. They

were not paying attention, they were just there to confirm what

they knew and expected. In 1931 Edgerton said ‘wait a minute, look

at this’.” And that was the beginning. He had noticed that when the

flash of light synced with the motor’s turning parts, it looked as

though they were frozen. It was to be his first clue toward

developing commercial high-speed motion photographry. “It was a

very powerful attitude to have — and it changed the world,”

said Kayafas.

Some of Edgerton’s photos are hanging in the most famous

galleries in the world, and Kayafas tells us he has seen the works

sit beside Picasso’s and Leonardo da Vinci’s — a bullet flying

through cards, caught in mid-air; an egg dropped on a fan; or a

football being kicked.

“The football image showed a crescent of dust above the ball,

taken in total darkness. There was a trip wire so when it was

touched the flash went off and where football was depressed by the

foot there was this little bit of dust sitting on the seam of where

it’s sewn together. The dust still had that curved shape. All those

little clues he enjoyed so much.

“Virtually all his shows had the same title: ‘Seeing the

unseen’. It’s the power of that vision — nobody had seen a bullet

stop or a fan swirling.” And of course it’s exactly the question

that drives every scientist — to understand the unseen, to learn

everything about it and maybe even manoeuvre it to their

will one day.

He was the kind of man, says Kayafas, who, armed only with a

magnifying glass, could start teaching about rocks on walls when

walking past with some kids. “It’s the things you wouldn’t think

about unless you were six — but he keeps asking those


Kayafas once asked Edgerton why he always asked for kids as

volunteers to demonstrate things. He told his friend: “Because in

their mind they can maybe be the President, or a quarterback or an

astronaut — it’s all possible and all real and it isn’t unitil bad

teachers and poor expectations that that starts shutting down.

Making mistakes is how you learn — it’s so critical.”

It’s because of this mentality, and that eternal childlike

questioning, that Edgerton would go on to be awarded a medal for his contribution to the

sciences by President Reagan
, and why he came to help his

friend Jacques Cousteau (who fondly referred to him as “Papa

Flash”) explore worlds deep underwater, developing the penetration

sonar-and echo sounder and other techniques for taking motion

pictures underwater. (Kayafas tells us how Cousteau decided

Edgerton was “the real Macgyver — out on a boat with the famed

diver, before any reliable distance communications systems existed,

Edgerton could solve any problem.)

Every month Edgerton’s pictures would appear in MIT’s
Technology Review, with a tagline “what’s this picture” –

and it would be a closeup of a hummingbird’s wing in flight, or a

bullet bursting through a piece of rubber. Sports shots were a

favourite as well, but each shot was a learning tool and told a

story about the physics of dynamics and momentum transfer. His work

was a research tool, and a beautiful one. He captured Judy Garland

and Mickey Rooney as teenagers, but also Moscow Circus acrobats,

ballerinas and plenty of exploding bullets. High-speed films of

popcorn popping or a dental drill were shown as shorts in cinemas

in the 30s and 40s.


Edgerton’s pictures will have been seen by almost everyone at

one point in their lives — from the golfer taking a swing or the

drop of milk mid-splash. But his contribution to the war should go

down in history as one of the most incredible feats of art, science

and curiosity culminating in a genuinely world-changing idea.

“Doc was contacted at the beginning of WWII by Major George

Goddard at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio,” says Kayafas, explaining

how it all began. “He was asked if he could make an electronic

flash that could take night pictures from a low-flying plane of the

ocean surface along the shore line of the northeast US — the

purpose was to reveal German U boats surfacing at night to recharge

their batteries.”

Edgerton, of course, proved he could, and the subs were found.

He then imagined a bigger and more powerful version, Kayafas says,

that, held in the bomb bay of a larger plane, could illuminate a

square mile from 1,500 feet.

“The technique was simply a very powerful xenon flash tube in a

highly reflective and efficiently designed reflector, with a

capacitor of 1/2 Farad (the size and weight of a very large

coffin). It generated one million beam candle power

)! By the time the flash recharged the plane had flown a

mile and was ready to fire again.”

He tested it in Italy, and Kayafas has a print of Mount Vesuvius

smoking away beneath their plane. “A few weeks before D-Day, the

final tests were conducted in the area around and including

Stonehenge — it looked like a model of Stonehenge.”

The timing of the Normandy landing was always going to be hugely

important to the pushback against the Germans. It had already been

postponed from May and again at the last minute because of poor

weather. Thousands of ships were traversing across the Atlantic,

tens of thousands of soldiers aboard them.

“Clearly it was one of the most carefully timed massive

logistics problem of the decade. His images confirmed the suspicion

that the secret hadn’t leaked and the Germans were not amassing

extra forces at night in Normandy — it was fortified and would be

terribly costly in lives, but it was not to be ineffectual suicide.

Doc was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1946 for this

and other war efforts.”

But this was not his only contribution to war.

Edgerton’s estate was worth tens of millions of dollars when he

died in 1990, which he largely gave away to MIT. Part of the reason

for this wealth was his contribution to the creation of the atomic

bomb. Specifically, the trigger for the weapon was based on a

patent by Edgerton. His company EGG, founded with Kenneth

Germeshausen and Herbert Grier, was involved in the first 900

nuclear weapons tests.

He had no part in the Manhattan Project, though, the RD

effort to develop the bombs. In fact, Kayafas tells us that after

his initial contribution, Edgerton was told he wasn’t needed

anymore. “The navy said it would do all the tests — but after the

first tests, with all the instrumentation from this hugely complex

logistical issue, their pictures started after the bomb went off.

They came back to him and said ‘we want you take this over’.” They

sent him an 87-page contract, which Edgerton threw out.

“We’re the only people that can do this,” he told them. “This is

about trusting each other, not money.”

Edgerton and his cofounders invented a rapid electronic camera

to take images of the blasts with incredible short exposure times.

The light from the explosion triggered a mechanism that opened and

then stopped exposure in four- to ten-millionths of a second. In 1952, Edgerton stood on

Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific to photograph the


When we ask Kayafas how Edgerton could justify this work,

sitting so uncomfortably alongside the portfolio of the rest of his

life’s achievements — each about learning and creating, not

destruction — he says it was always a difficult question to pose

to the artist and scientist. Kayafas had, at one time, thought

Edgerton was for the Vietnam war, after he grew annoyed at the

protest posters dotted round MIT. “Then I found a letter he had

sent to Richard Nixon after he received the Medal of Freedom, and

it said ‘why are we putting our young men there?’ He got back the

same sheets we all did about the Domino Theory and other bullshit.

It turned out he was angry about people defacing wonderful stone


And his contribution to the nuclear bomb? “He believed and still

believed if we didn’t develop that, the war would have been lost –

and that’s the rationalisation 70 years gives.”

Edgerton continued, throughout his life, to bring the

playfulness and inquisitiveness that made him a profoundly gifted

scientist and artist, to everything he did. But despite creating

everyday — building a new underwater photography repertoire from

scratch for a friend, engineering war-winning strategies and

shooting images that capture the imagination of people still today

and inspire countless reworkings — he refused to describe himself

as an artist, time and time again. When Kayafas asked him why is

it, then, that he had spent so long looking over 10,000 filmstrips

showing drops of water falling on milk, and only displayed one

during a show.

“Because they are the beautiful ones,” he replied. 



Dr Harold Edgerton: Abstractions will exhibit at

until 2 August at the Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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