Lab experiment becomes art

Edgerton photo of woman and hummingbirds

Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineering professor Harold Edgerton became world famous for his invention of the strobe light and stroboscopic photography, the latter a form of ultra high speed photography using strobe lights. Edgerton was studying turbine engines in his 1930s Cambridge Massachusetts lab and wanted stop-action images of the engine in motion. However, camera systems of the day could not take such high speed photographs, as their shutters opened and closed too slowly. A turbine engine is way faster than a camera shutter. Instead of ‘clicking’ photos of high speed objects, Edgerton’s new process turned off the lights, opened wide the camera’s shutter and, in the darkness, shot quick flashes of light from his strobe light onto the moving subject. The camera film would thus show instantaneous bursts of action.

With this stroboscopic photography, Edgerton was able to capture a high speed world never before seen by human eyes: a hummingbird’s wings in mid flap, a speeding bullet piercing a playing card, a splash of milk in mid splash.  Today, many of Edgerton’s surreal, fantastic and sometime beautiful photographs are considered to be works of art.


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