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Milk Drop Coronet, Harold Edgerton, 1936

Milk Drop Coronet. Click to enlarge.

© Harold Edgerton, 2013
Courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

This simple image captures a milk drop as it strikes a thin layer of milk. The photographer, Harold Edgerton, maintained that he was a scientist rather than an artist, but he and his colleagues nonetheless produced many stunning pictures, of which Milk Drop is but one. National Geographic called him "the man who made time stand still."

Harold Eugene Edgerton (1903–1990) graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Nebraska and continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For his doctoral thesis, he used strobe lights to study electric motors and the motion of everyday events. Among his early works are renowned photos of a balloon bursting and of bullets penetrating apples. In 1947 he founded his own company, EG&G, which, among other things, supplied special cameras for recording nuclear explosions. He also contributed to the development of side-scan sonar and worked with Jacques Cousteau to provide lighting for undersea filming. Over the course of his career, Edgerton received most of the honors possible for a technical wizard, including the National Medal of Science and the Royal Photographic Society's Bronze Medal.

He taught at MIT for many years, and in 1992 the Edgerton Center, devoted to hands-on engineering and technical education, was named in his honor.

The most eye-catching of Edgerton's contributions was his spectacular stop-motion photography. The human eye cannot time-resolve events shorter than a fraction of a second, which is why movies appear to be continuous, rather than the sequence of still images that they really are. Edgerton's discoveries and inventions enabled him to reduce photographic exposure times to less than a millionth of a second. He achieved this feat by opening a camera's shutter in a darkened space, generating a flash of light to expose the film, and then closing the shutter. With associated electronics, he could control both the brightness and duration of the flash, creating a very brief light that, by coincidence, had a color similar to daylight. The challenge was to trigger this flash at just the right moment. It is said that Edgerton tried many times to produce a symmetrical version of Milk Drop, but he was never completely successful.

The Ransom Center holds a collection of 35 of Edgerton's prints from throughout his career. His major archives are housed at MIT. The book Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton provides a comprehensive account of his work.   —Alan Herbert