Drops & Splashes

by Joyce Bedi

Doc originally developed the electronic stroboscope to study problems in large electrical motors. But his first subject outside the engine room was water flowing from a faucet. Perhaps this ignited his lifelong interest in the behavior of drops and splashes of all sorts.Drops and splashes were among Edgerton’s favorite subjects. For decades, he sought the “perfect” drop. While images like the milk drop hitting a red plate are among Doc’s best known, there was a serious side to these photographs as well.An entrepreneur at heart, Edgerton campaigned for the strobe’s use among his MIT colleagues, members of local industries, and professional and amateur photographers. In this way, he gained a broad range of experience with the abilities and deficiencies of the strobe and fed this knowledge back into further experimentation. Within a few years of putting the strobe on the market, he had a long list of companies and government agencies that had hired him to look into one problem or another.For example, in 1939 he collaborated with the U.S. Soil Conservation Dept. on a study of soil erosion. In his notebook he wrote, “Germeshausen and Mr. Laws have been taking 1000/second movies of drops striking soil for the last several days. The drops of H2O come from the ceiling and hit samples below.” He added an image a few pages later about how the movies were created.But Doc wasn’t all business all the time. His sense of play led to some unusual experimental set-ups. In 1936, he put his camera and strobe at the base of an elevator shaft, and then photographed drops released through a hole in the elevator floor—from the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth floors! When his kind of curiosity and sense of wonder was combined with a keen understanding of photography and electrical engineering, the result was a blurring of the line between technology and art.Studying the behavior of drops and splashes added to knowledge about surface tension and had both scientific and commercial applications. But Doc’s fascination with such a simple event as a falling drop of liquid is testament to his belief that learning is a lifelong occupation. A gifted teacher, Edgerton was a keen student as well. “I have always empathized with the student who sees new discoveries and knowledge that were not anticipated flowing from the laboratory,” he wrote in 1987. “There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ result or a complete study of a phenomenon. For example, although I’ve tried for years to photograph a drop of milk splashing on a plate with all the coronet’s points spaced equally apart, I have never succeeded.” Browse additional notebook pages related to “drops of water”.