Harold Edgerton was a celebrated electrical engineer who pioneered stroboscopic photography in order to make images of fast moving subjects, and in the process invented the electronic flash. His photographs were highly innovative, winning many major awards, and have subsequently become admired by art collectors and museums the world over.
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Born on 6 April 1903 in Nebraska, Edgerton was from a long-standing American family who could trace their direct ancestry back to the Mayflower. His father was an influential local figure and politician. Edgerton trained as an electrical engineer at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and then pursued a Masters degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, where he was made a professor in 1934.
It was in 1931, while studying for his Masters, that Edgerton developed an electronic flash system to enable him to photograph a motor in action. This began a lifelong pursuit that made him into one of the most famous photographers of the twentieth century. His revolutionary electronic flashes also gained him great demand amongst industrial clients.
Inspired by a childhood love of photography, Edgerton went on to photograph all manner of interesting subjects that could be frozen by his flash systems: bullets breaking through playing cards, animals in motion, sportsmen kicking balls and milk dropping into a pool of liquid. The images captured the public’s imagination and his work Coronet featured in MOMA’s first photography exhibition in 1937.
Edgerton’s invention developed in sophistication over time, and had additional, unplanned uses. He was hired by the US military during the Second World War to develop flashes for aerial reconnaissance, and also to photograph atom bomb tests in the Pacific. In the 1950s Edgerton befriended the underwater explorer and pioneer, Jacques Cousteau, and developed technology for him that improved underwater photography.
Throughout all of this Edgerton continued to teach at MIT and was known for being friendly and generous with his knowledge. He died on 4 January 1990 at the age of 86. He was survived by his wife Esther, and their three children.