How Harold Edgerton’s ‘Bullet through Apple’ made time stand still


Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

In Snap, we look at the power of a single photo and capture stories about how both modern and historical images were created.

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.

The photo is widely regarded as a work of art. More important for the maker, however, was that it was also a piece of electrical engineering. The longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor used it to illustrate a lecture, famously titled “How to make applemouse,” in which he explained the groundbreaking flash technology that helped him get the picture .

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. .

By the time he fired the shutter for his now-famous apple photo, Edgerton had developed a micro-flash that used regular air instead of xenon. He had also produced decades of familiar images: hummingbirds in mid-flight, golf clubs hitting balls, and even atomic bomb explosions. (During World War II, Edgerton developed a special “rapatronic” — or fast electronic — camera for the Atomic Energy Commission that could control the amount of light entering the camera during the explosions.)

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

Over the years, Edgerton and his students have used a rifle for objects such as bananas, balloons, and playing cards. For Vandiver, its simplicity was why the apple—along with a 1957 image of a splashing milk drop—became one of Edgerton’s defining photographs. “It captures your imagination… and you instantly understand what it is,” he said.

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.”

While Vandiver said “there’s definitely an artistic legacy” to Edgerton’s visual experiments that helped advance the field of photography, his research has also had a profound impact on science and industry. His hands-on approach lives on at MIT’s Edgerton Center, established in his honor in 1992. Vandiver, who is the center’s director, said every student is encouraged to take a bullet photo of themselves.

“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.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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