Bursting with energy but perfectly still, Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s 1964 photograph of a .30-caliber bullet piercing an apple revealed an otherwise unseen moment in fascinating detail. The scene took on a quiet, sculptural beauty as the peeling apple unfolded against a dark blue background.
Edgerton, who died in 1990 at the age of 86, is considered the father of high-speed photography. The camera’s shutter speeds were too slow to capture a bullet flying at 2,800 feet per second, but its stroboscopic flashes—the forerunner of modern strobe lights—produced such short bursts of light that an otherwise well-timed photograph in a dark room. , made time seem to stand still. The results were fascinating and often confusing.
“We used to joke that it would take a third of a microsecond (millionth of a second) and all morning to clean up to take a picture,” recalls J. Kim Vandiver, his former student and teaching assistant. Video call from Massachusetts.
While early camera operators experimented with pyrotechnic “flash powders” that combined metallic fuels and oxidizing agents to create a brief, bright chemical reaction, Edgerton, a Nebraska native, created a flash that was shorter and easier to control. His breakthrough was more a matter of physics than chemistry: After arriving at MIT in the 1920s, he developed a flash tube filled with xenon gas that, when exposed to a high voltage, caused electricity to jump between two electrodes for a fraction of a second. .
Another famous photograph by Edgerton, taken in 1957, shows a crown-like splash created by milk droplets. Credit: Harold Edgerton/MIT; courtesy Palm Press
However, his bullet photos from the 1960s proved some of his most memorable. According to Vandiver, who still works as a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, the problem wasn’t producing the flash, but getting the camera off at the right time. Human reactions were too slow to take a photo manually, so Edgerton used the bullet itself as a trigger.
“There would be a microphone under the picture,” Vandiver said. “So when the shock wave from the bullet hit the microphone, the microphone turned off the flash and you would (then) close the shutter.”
There was another factor at play: Edgerton’s artistic eye. The compositional beauty of his images saw them reproduced in newspapers and magazines around the world, and more than 100 of his photographs are today housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But Edgerton declined the additional title.
“Don’t make me look like an artist,” he said. “I’m an engineer. I’m after the facts, only the facts.”
“We’re still teaching the course and the students are still coming up with weird things to draw,” she said, recalling recent photos of crayons and lipstick shattered by bullets. “Apples are boring now.”