Wartime Strobe: 1939 – 1945

In the summer of 1939, Major George W. Goddard of the Army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) paid a call on Edgerton and his colleagues at the Strobe Lab. Goddard had been a pilot in the World War I and knew first-hand the value-and limitations of – aerial photography using flash bombs. He asked Edgerton if a strobe lamp could be built that would be powerful enough to take photographs at night from the height of one mile.

Doc rose to the challenge with his usual “let’s invent a way to do it” spirit, but immediately saw two problems: such equipment would weigh several tons and the huge flash tubes required probably would blow up on use. But Goddard knew that larger planes that could handle the weight were on the drawing board, so Edgerton went to work perfecting his quartz flash lamps. In April 1941, the first experimental unit-camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector was mounted in the bomb bay of a B-18 and tested over Boston. Further tests showed that the system worked well, but one significant problem still needed to be solved. Edgerton’s equipment took great nighttime photographs, but they often were not of the target area. Night navigation was difficult, especially over blacked-out enemy territory. So nighttime aerial photography did not find widespread use until late 1943, when it was coupled with radar.

Everything was in place, then, for the system’s most famous test. On the evening of June 5, 1944, the nighttime reconnaissance planes took off for Normandy. They were followed shortly by a flying army in C-47s, headed for the invasion of France. Photographs of the quiet nighttime landscape revealed that the enemy force would be taken completely by surprise. The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. It provided information that could be obtained in no other way.

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