Exploding with energy but perfectly still, Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s 1964 image of a .30-caliber bullet tearing through an apple showed an otherwise unseen moment in captivating detail. The scene took on a serene, sculptural beauty as the peel of the disintegrating apple burst open against a deep blue backdrop.
Edgerton, who died in 1990 at the age of 86, is considered the father of fast photography. The camera’s shutter speeds were too slow to catch a bullet flying at 2,800 feet per second, but its stroboscopic flashes—a precursor to modern strobe lights—created flashes of light so brief that a well-timed photo, shot in an otherwise dark room, made it seem as if time had stood still. The results were fascinating and often messy.
“We used to joke that it took a third of a microsecond (millionth of a second) to get the shot — and all morning to clean up,” his former student and teaching assistant, J. Kim Vandiver, recalled on a video call from Massachusetts.
While early camera operators had experimented with pyrotechnic “flash powders” that combined metal fuels and oxidizers to produce a short, bright chemical reaction, Nebraska native Edgerton created a flash that was much 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 high voltage, produced electricity for a fraction of a second between two electrodes. would jump. .
Another famous photograph of Edgerton, taken in 1957, shows the crown-like splash produced by drops of milk. Credit: Harold Edgerton/MIT; courtesy of Palm Press
Yet it was his 1960s bullet shots that turned out to be some of these most memorable. According to Vandiver, who still works at MIT as a mechanical engineering professor, the challenge wasn’t producing a flash, but firing the camera at just the right moment. Human reactions were too slow to take the shot manually, so Edgerton used the sound of the bullet itself as a trigger.
“There would be a microphone off-screen, just below,” Vandiver said. “So when the shock wave from the bullet hit the microphone, the microphone activated the flash and then you closed the (shutter after that).”
Making an icon
There was another factor at play: Edgerton’s artistic eye. Because of the compositional beauty of his photographs, they were republished in newspapers and magazines around the world, and more than 100 of his photographs are now held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Still, Edgerton rejected the additional title.
“Don’t make me an artist,” he said. “I’m an engineer. I’m after the facts, only the facts.”
“We’re still teaching the course, and students are still coming up with weird things to take pictures of,” he said, recalling recent images of colored chalk and lipstick being torn apart by bullets. “Apples are boring now.”