Mapping the Charles River with Doc

by Bert Forbes ’66

April 9, 2015

Doc was an amazing teacher, and we learned a lot more than just how to take high-speed photos. He was really interested in side scan sonar, which he used to find the Monitor of Civil War fame and to search for Nessie in Loch Ness (nothing found).  He also perfected what he called ‘boomers’, high-powered, vertically oriented, sonar pingers.  We used the boomer to go out and try to map the Charles River across from MIT, which legend said had no bottom. Indeed Doc’s sonar showed that the mud of the Charles just got thicker, but had no true bottom.

"Doc" Edgerton on the Charles River, c. 1962

“Doc” Edgerton on the Charles River, c. 1962. See the MIT Museum’s record of this photo

I remember the day he wanted to try out a new under-water camera. He asked everybody who was hanging around the lab to go over to the MIT pool and help. So there was the famous Professor in his swimsuit, mask and flippers taking photos of targets that we would position closer or farther away at his request. If I’m not confusing two separate events, Jacques Cousteau’s son, Philippe, was there that day also; both really nice folks and willing to get their feet wet.

I also remember a huge strobe lamp held up by a 2×4 piece of wood 8 feet tall in Doc’s lab. The interesting thing about this piece of wood was that it was totally charred. When I asked why the wood was burned, Doc said that this was the prototype for the strobe that was to go on the new Prudential Building across the river. The first time he fired it, the energy output was so high that the 2×4 burst into flames and had to be extinguished. I think he kept it around to remind himself and others to be careful.

Most of all I remember Doc as a fun-loving, caring individual who charmed everyone he met and left them a better person. He helped me get a summer job at EG&G in Albuquerque. I am sure that it was Doc’s letter of recommendation that helped get me into Stanford University graduate school. He encouraged me to try things, even if he suspected or knew that it might not work. He was naturally curious, and that was infectious.

My favorite Doc saying is “Work hard, tell everyone everything you know, close a deal with a handshake and have fun!” To which I would add “do good” – probably not correct English, but I think it carries Doc’s message. And when the opportunity arose, I sold a building on a handshake. He was truly someone that made a difference.

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