Doc at Loch Ness: A Bolt From the Blue


by Tony Harmsworth

[This article appeared originally at the Loch Ness Information website.]

I count among my fond memories the fact that I had the privilege of meeting Harold “Doc” Edgerton of Jacques Cousteau fame on a number of occasions while he was visiting [Loch Ness] with Doctor Robert Rines.

On one of those occasions I was seated beside him during an excellent dinner party staged by Dr Rines at Tychat SATPIC 14 above Urquhart Bay. Doc was in his eighties then, but so vibrant and alive.

I took the opportunity to ask him exactly how he invented the strobe flash and his answer was just mesmerising.

He told me how he was having trouble with electric motors which got up to a certain number of revolutions per minute and then shattered. He couldn’t figure out what the problem was and he tried many ways to resolve it. Eventually he decided to set up a spark beside the motor which would be generated every time the motor did a single revolution. Then he dimmed the lights and gradually increased the motor’s speed.

As the spark was synchronised with the motor’s revolution, it always illuminated the exact same area of the motor. In effect the motor appeared stationary. As the motor reached the point at which it failed he could actually see the cause of the failure and went on to develop far superior motors.

During one of these tests a colleague came into the laboratory and came around and looked over his shoulder at what he was doing. Doc Edgerton explained that the motor was revolving at X thousand revs and that it only appeared stationary because of the brightness of the spark, its short duration and the fact that the room lights were dimmed.

“Have you thought of photographing it?” asked the colleague — and the rest is history.

Today Harold Edgerton’s work can be seen all over the world from the frozen image of a splashing milk drop used as a logo by the British Milk Marketing board to the famous bullet through and apple shot which he actually performed for me live at MIT when I visited his lab in 1979. He was the inventor of the electronic flash, the strobe light, airport runway lights and many more techniques which involved high speed photography. During the fifties his firm EG&G photographed nuclear explosions and young photographic specialists like the late Charlie Wyckoff worked with him.

However, he went on to tell us that he had travelled to the National Photographic Centre in Bradford to give a talk and, accompanied by the mayor, he arrived at the exhibition centre only to find posters claiming that there was to be a talk by “Doctor Harold Edgerton of MIT, Inventor of the Electronic Flash.” He leaned over to the mayor and said, “But I didn’t invent the flash.” Horrified at some protocol blunder, the mayor asked who did.

I imagine Doc had the same twinkle in his eye when he answered the mayor as he did when he recounted the story to us.

“Why, of course,” the Great Man said, “the lightning flash was invented by God Almighty long before me!”

It is not often one has the opportunity to meet a man of true genius and I shall always treasure the memory of that evening at Dr Rines’ house above Loch Ness when I had dinner with one of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century.


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