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Harold E. Edgerton papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0025

Scope and Contents of the Collection

Research projects and Stroboscopic Laboratory

Harold Edgerton's laboratory notebooks (Series 3) are a central source of information for his research activities from 1930 to 1990 as well as many other personal and professional activities. Researchers interested in what Harold Edgerton was doing at a particular time should look first in the chronologically-maintained notebooks. Notebook entries reveal names of projects in progress, equipment used, and people involved. Researchers may then consult names listed under subject correspondence (Series 2), research projects (Series 3), and technical specifications and plans (Series 3) in the finding aid to attempt to locate additional information pertaining to those projects, equipment, or people. Also, Edgerton often published his research findings within months after obtaining results in the laboratory. Researchers should look at articles with appropriate dates in the list of writings (Series 7).

An alternative research strategy would be to scan the list of writings (Series 7) by Harold Edgerton to find topics of interest among the titles. Dates of publication often followed laboratory results by several months. The researcher should note dates of articles and then consult the laboratory notebook entries (Series 3) immediately preceding the published work. These entries should contain names that will enable the researcher to continue as outlined above.

Harold Edgerton's trip notebooks supplement the laboratory notebooks, and are especially significant for his underwater research and other summer activities from 1950 to 1989. These are filed in Series 6 by date of trip. A researcher interested in what Edgerton did in a particular type of underwater investigation, or at a particular site, should scan the list of trips files in the finding aid to locate a project of interest and then make a note of pertinent dates and names found in the relevant folder. A thorough search for additional material would include looking for the names of people, equipment, and projects in the subject correspondence (Series 2), technical specifications and plans (Series 3), and research projects files (Series 3). The researcher should also consult the sonar records (Series 3) and laboratory notebooks (Series 3) by date, and writings (Series 7) by date or by scanning for relevant titles in the writings.

Harold Edgerton's activities in the Stroboscopic Laboratory at MIT are meticulously recorded in his laboratory notebooks (boxes 50-57), which are supplemented by information filed in the technical specifications and plans part of the collection (box 59, folder 6 - box 73, folder 10). It was at MIT, in the Strobe Lab or at the swimming pool and other locations, that Edgerton developed and tested his innovations in photography and in underwater equipment. His elaborate discussions and interactions with colleagues from various fields at MIT, and the ensuing cross-pollination of ideas, are well documented by his laboratory notebook entries.

Photographs of MIT laboratories and personnel, often identified by Harold Edgerton in handwritten notes, are found throughout the notebooks as well as in albums in the biographical series (boxes 119-125). These pictures provide a visual record over time of changes to labs and lab personnel.

Personal and family information

The chronology of the life and work of Harold E. Edgerton in this finding aid as well as published material located in box 4, folder 8, and box 5, folders 1-2, provides a good overview of significant names and dates in the Edgerton papers. Familiarity with these biographical sketches and outlines will help users of MC 25 navigate the collection's interconnected and complementary resources. Appointment books (boxes 152-154) also help provide an overview of activities.

This collection differs from most other collections of scientific papers in that it contains rich and varied documentation of personal activities, allowing one to trace connections between professional accomplishments and the personal background to them.

The bulk of personal and family information is found in the biographical series, Series 1 (box 1, folder 1 - box 9, folder 1, and boxes 117-130, 139, 140, 142, 146), which greatly enriches the collection by affording insights into Harold Edgerton's background, feelings, interpersonal relations, and recreation. Personal reflections about himself and those close to him are recorded in autobiographical fragments (box 1, folders 2-9) as well as in audiotapes made at family gatherings (boxes 139-142). Family history is preserved in photograph albums (boxes 119-125), audiotapes (boxes 139, 140, 142), and an Edgerton family tree (box 4, folder 6). Of special interest are tapes containing anecdotes about Edgerton's youthful adventures in the 1920s (box 146) and interviews with his young grandchildren (box 140).

Additional personal and family information is included in Harold Edgerton's laboratory notebooks (boxes 50-57, boxes 144-147) and travel notebooks (box 90, folder 7 - box 104, folder 7). Both sources contain regular entries of a professional nature mixed with brief notes and occasional photographs documenting personal activities, including visitors entertained, vacations taken, dinners attended, and even births and marriages.

Documentation of Harold Edgerton's personality and personal interactions is richly preserved in letters from friends, colleagues, and former students sent upon the occasion of his formal retirement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 (box 3, folders 5-9). These letters record memories about him and recount specific anecdotes about incidents in his life.

Harold Edgerton's personal taste in music, skills as a guitar player, and enthusiasm for singing are amply reflected by several sound recordings featuring his musical performances at family gatherings (boxes 139-142).

Photographic accomplishments, including development of innovations in stroboscopic lighting and underwater photography

Harold Edgerton learned basic photographic skills while a student in Nebraska in the early 1920s. In 1926, while a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he used a primitive stroboscope to study engines. By adjusting the frequency of the strobe's flashes to the rotation speed of the whirling parts of a motor, he was able to observe the parts as if they were stationary. In 1931 he developed and improved strobes and used them to freeze objects in motion so that they could be captured on film by a camera. In the same year he developed techniques to use the strobe for ultra-high-speed movies. Adjustments and improvements to stroboscopic technologies continued throughout his career.

His improvements to strobes and development of possible applications for them are detailed in the laboratory notebooks (boxes 50-57), where regular entries illustrate the evolution of an idea, recording inspirations, problems addressed, materials and techniques tried, often through trial and error, and workable solutions. The notebooks include photographs of equipment and diagrams of circuits as well as images illustrating the results obtained by stroboscopic photography. Additional notes, diagrams, and photos are located in technical specifications and plans (box 59, folder 6 - box 73, folder 10), research projects (box 73, folder 11 - box 83, folder 4, and box 135), writings (box 104, folder 8 - box 114, folder 10), and patents files (box 4, folder 10, and box 90, folders 2-5).

Some narrative information about the development of stroboscopes is recorded by Edgerton in the autobiographical materials he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s (box 1, folders 2-9). Additional information is found among the many newspaper and magazine articles written about his accomplishments and located in biographical folders (box 5, folder 1 - box 9, folder 1), an obituary folder (box 4, folder 8), and several volumes of scrapbooks (boxes 126-130). He also described his work with strobes in several speeches (boxes 141, 143).

Harold Edgerton's development and testing of the D-5 flash unit for nighttime photography of enemy activities in World War II is described in detail in the nighttime aerial surveillance files (box 77, folder 1 - box 81, folder 7).

His improvements to underwater photography by devising pressure-resistant camera housings and workable underwater lights and pingers (for determining the height of a photographic unit above the sea floor) are recorded in correspondence with French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (box 14, folder 4 - box 15, folder 1) and the National Geographic Society (box 31, folder 6 - box 34, folder 13), as well as in laboratory notebooks (boxes 50-57), technical specifications and plans (box 59, folder 6 - box 73, folder 10), writings (box 104, folder 8 - box 114, folder 10), and research projects files (box 73, folder 11 - box 83, folder 4, and boxes 139, 142, 143).

Harold Edgerton was aware of the commercial and artistic value of many of his photographs, although he preferred to emphasize the scientific and human interest aspects of his work. Many of the prints which have come to be regarded as fine art are reproduced in books by him (box 105, folder 47; box 110, folder 14; and box 113, folder 8) and in anthologies reproducing his photographs in an artistic context (box 138). Exhibits and portfolios of his prints are discussed in Edgerton's correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution (box 41, folder 9), Jean Philippe Charbonnier (box 13, folder 5), Eastman House (box 16, folder 14), and Gus Kayafas (box 24, folder 2). Edgeton's friend Gjon Mili discusses the artistic meaning of high-speed photography (box 29, folder 11) in his correspondence with Edgerton, who developed many of the techniques used and popularized by Mili.

Harold Edgerton's interest in sports photography, including boxing, golf, football, and tennis, is documented by notes and prints in laboratory notebooks (box 50, folder 6 - box 57, folder 5) and scrapbooks (boxes 126-130). His correspondence with Vannevar Bush includes a discussion of baseball photography (box 12, folder 11).

Nature photography, including development of units to capture the motion of hummingbird wings without harming the animals, is discussed in Harold Edgerton's correspondence with Crawford Greenewalt (box 20, folders 6-7), the National Geographic Society (box 31, folder 6 - box 34, folder 13), and the Denver Museum of Natural History (box 16, folder 1), as well as in writings (box 104, folder 8 - box 114, folder 10), trips files, and research projects files (box 73, folder 11 - box 83, folder 4).

Underwater exploration, including work with Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Harold Edgerton designed the first successful underwater camera in 1937 and deep sea electronic flash equipment in 1953. He developed special sonar applications to facilitate location of underwater objects and devised pingers to enable underwater cameras to be accurately positioned above the sea floor.

His expertise in the development and use of oceanographic equipment led the National Geographic Society in 1953 to arrange a meeting with French underseas explorer Jacques Cousteau, beginning a friendship and professional collaboration which lasted nearly four decades. Edgerton's trips aboard Cousteau's research vessel Calypso are described in his correspondence with the National Geographic Society (box 31, folder 6 - box 34, folder 13), in articles in scrapbooks (boxes 126-130) and biographical folders (box 5, folders 1-2), and in autobiographical fragments (box 1, folders 2-9). Travel arrangements and equipment requirements, as well as personal news items, are discussed in Edgerton's correspondence with Cousteau (box 14, folder 4 - box 15, folder 1) and Cousteau's colleagues Georges Houot (box 22, folder 7), Andre Laban (box 25, folder 3), and Jacques Piccard (box 38, folder 2). Anecdotes about "Papa Flash" (the crew's nickname for Edgerton) are found in letters to Harold Edgerton (box 3, folder 5) upon the occasion of his official MIT retirement in 1968, filed together under "Calypso." An illustrated diary kept by Edgerton's Calypso shipmate James Dugan on a voyage to Greece in 1953 serves as a log of daily events and captures the spirit of a summer with Cousteau's crew, including anecdotes about Edgerton (box 4, folder 3, and box 135).

The development and testing of underwater cameras, boomers, flash units, pingers, sonar modifications, and other oceanographic devices for Cousteau and others is described stage by stage in the laboratory notebooks (boxes 50-57). Additional information is located in the technical specifications and plans files (box 59, folder 6 - box 73, folder 10) and in the writings and speeches series (box 105, folder 43 - box 114, folder 10).

The trips series (box 90, folder 7 - box 104, folder 7) contains much material about Edgerton's participation in underwater projects. These folders often contain detailed notebooks in which he made regular entries including personal information as well as data, diagrams, and hand drawn maps. Some background information about underwater activities is located in the research projects files.

An additional rich source for underwater archaeological, geological, and biological investigations is Edgerton's correspondence (box 9, folder 2 - box 49) with his collaborators on projects. Researchers interested, for example, in Edgerton's work hunting for the Loch Ness monster should look first in the Loch Ness, Scotland, trips files and also consult correspondence with Robert Rines.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Harold Edgerton's activities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began with his enrollment as a graduate student in electrical engineering in 1926 and continued until his death in 1990. These activities are reflected in several series in the collection.

His teaching and administrative responsibilities at the Institute, including teaching courses and workshops about stroboscopes (box 83, folder 6 - box 84, folder 11), supervising the operations of the Stroboscopic Laboratory (box 85, folder 1 - box 87, folder 5), and advising students regarding theses (box 87, folders 10-13), are recorded in Series 4, MIT Teaching and Administrative Materials. His concern for the intellectual development and emotional well-being of his students and former students is amply demonstrated by his correspondence with them in the subjects correspondence (box 9, folder 2 - box 49). The collection also includes a card file of his students in box 117 identifying courses they took with him, as well as anecdotes in published articles about him (box 5, folders 1-2) and "Birthday greetings, 1968" (box 4, folders 5-9).

His personal reminiscences about his work at MIT, with emphasis on his early work developing stroboscopic techniques, are recorded in the autobiographical materials in Series 1 (box 1, folders 2-9).

Business interests, including EG&G, Inc., patents, and intellectual property rights

Harold Edgerton and Kenneth Germeshausen created an informal business agreement in 1931, whereby they worked together on industrial applications of stroboscopic technology and took equipment to factories to reveal ways of improving efficiency in the operation of machinery. In 1934 they joined with Herbert Grier to form a partnership, incorporated in 1947 as Edgerton, Germeshausen & Grier, Inc. (later EG&G, Inc.). The growth and activities of this corporation, with a particular focus on Edgerton's personal contributions, are well documented in Series 5 (box 87, folder 15 - box 90, folder 6, and box 143). Edgerton's early work with Germeshausen is recorded in detail in the laboratory notebooks, particularly two notebooks kept by Germeshausesn (box 50).

Harold Edgerton filed for a patent on the stroboscope in 1933, and filed for and received many patents thereafter. These business interests are recorded in the patent files in the biographical (box 4, folder 9) as well as the EG&G series (box 90, folders 2-5).

Photographic images produced by Edgerton using stroboscopic techniques were much in demand by textbook publishers, magazines, advertisers, and others. His attitude toward the marketing of his photographs varied widely, depending upon who wanted to purchase what. His financial arrangements with commercial publishers regarding the sale of reproduction rights for his photographs are documented in correspondence regarding publications (box 114, folder 11 - box 115, folder 4). He habitually deposited money received from sale of his images into an account at MIT to defray costs for students enrolled in Strobe Lab (box 85, folder 1 - box 86, folder 11). His generosity in granting free reproduction rights to charitable and educational institutions and his distribution of souvenir postcards (containing reproductions of his photographs) to nearly everyone he met is recorded under names of individual correspondents in the subjects correspondence series (box 9, folder 2 - box 50, folder 5). Information about reproduction and sale of Harold Edgerton images in the late 1970s and 1980s is located in correspondence with Gus Kayafas (box 24, folder 2).

Military research

Harold Edgerton's research for the military began in 1939 when he was asked by the US Army Air Force to design a strobe lamp strong enough to allow nighttime aerial photography of enemy activities on the ground. Development and testing of this equipment, including the D-5 flash unit and other devices, continued until 1944 and included trips by Edgerton to Ohio, Italy, England, and France. These activities are documented by reports, photographs, blueprints, and correspondence in nighttime aerial surveillance in World War II files (box 77, folder 1 - box 81, folder 7, and boxes 136-137), as well as in a sound recording made by Edgerton and others (box 143).

Photography of nuclear weapons testing was undertaken by Harold Edgerton and his partners, Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert Grier, in 1947, under contract to the Atomic Energy Commission. The commission thereafter hired them to create timing and firing systems for bomb tests; EG&G, Inc., the corporation they founded, continued to perform such functions for many years. These activities are described in EG&G company history files (box 89, folder 16).

Edgerton's dealings with the US Navy, regarding bathyscaphe lights, sonar, and other matters, are documented in the subject correspondence series (box 44, folder 11 - box 45, folder 4).


  • 1889 - 1999


Access note

Materials in this collection are open unless they are marked as restricted. Restrictions are noted in the container list.

Intellectual Property Rights

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Separate written application for permission to publish must be made to Distinctive Collections. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection.

Conditions Governing Use

Condition of media needs to be reviewed. Use of some audiomaterials may require production of listening copies.


Harold "Doc" Eugene Edgerton, 1903-1990, BS 1926, University of Nebraska; SM 1927 and ScD 1931 in electrical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was professor of electrical engineering at MIT, 1928-1966; Institute Professor, 1966-1968; and Institute Professor emeritus, 1968-1990. Edgerton perfected the stroboscope and developed photographic techniques that allowed very rapid events to be observed and captured on film. He also developed techniques for underwater exploration, using sonar devices and flash photography, and participated in many oceanographic and archaeological expeditions. During World War II he designed a strobe lamp for nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography for the US Army Air Force and directed its use in Italy, England, and France. In 1947, with Kenneth J. Germeshausen and Herbert E. Grier, former students, he formed Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier, Inc. (EG&G,Inc.), a company specializing in electronic technology. In 1953 he began a long association with French underwater explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, accompanying him on numerous expeditions and designing various devices for underwater photography and exploration.


132096 Megabytes (129 GB (138,996,944,896 bytes) on disk) : TIF files from microfilm digitization

2143 Megabytes (multiple files)

6656 Megabytes (6.5 GB in 39 Files, 15 Folders)

52 Cubic Feet (1 record carton, 133 manuscript boxes 8 half manuscript boxes, 5 tubes, 2 pamphlet boxes, 1 half pamphlet box, 3 flat boxes, 3 cassette boxes, 1 CD box, 36 microfilm reels in 6 microfilm boxes, 9 photograph albums and 5 scrapbooks each in enclosure, 6.5 GB in 39 Files, 15 Folders [one folder per original audio tape], 129 GB of digitized microfilm of laboratory notebooks)

Language of Materials



Research materials, laboratory notebooks, correspondence, autobiographical materials, audio and video recordings of Harold E. Edgerton, professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1928 to 1966, Institute Professor from 1966 to 1968, and Institute Professor Emeritus from 1968 to 1990. Edgerton perfected the stroboscope and developed photographic techniques that allowed very rapid events to be observed and captured on film. He also developed techniques for underwater exploration, using sonar devices and flash photography, and participated in many oceanographic and archaeological expeditions.

Arrangement note

Organized into seven series: Series 1. Biographical Materials; Series 2. Subject Correspondence Files; Series 3. Research Materials (Subseries 3A. Laboratory Notebooks; Subseries 3B. Sonar Research Materials; Subseries 3C. Technical Specifications and Plans; Subseries 3D. Projects); Series 4. Massachusetts Instititute of Technology Related Materials; Series 5. EG & G, Inc. Records; Series 6. Trip Materials; Series 7. Writings and Speeches.


Some materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisiton

The papers were given to the Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) by Harold E. Edgerton between 1978 and 1989 and by his estate between 1990 and 1993. Additional material was received in 2001, 2007, 2008.

Location of Copies

Preservation master and use microfilm of original laboratory notebooks was made in 1996 and 1997, when notebooks were ungoing preservation treatment. Microfilm captured the notebooks before loose items were removed (now housed separately) during preservation treatment. A set of microfim for researcher use is available in the Archives reading room.

Location of Copies - Digitized

Laboratory notebooks have been digitzed as part of the Edgerton Digital Collections (EDC) Project and can be found at

Unredacted digital laboratory notebook copies are available in the Archives Reading Room.

Selected audio recordings were reformatted to digital master and use files in 2004 and 2005. Use copies on CDs are in the collection, box 163; use cassettes are in box 164.

Location of Copies

Material digitized from the collection can be found on the Z:/mc0025. Items include: 4 photographs from s. 2 b. 18, f. Honor Frost (14) 10,374 files in 91.6GB [digitized microfilm of laboratory notebooks]

Related Materials

Missing Title

Edgerton Digital Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Instruments and Visual Materials
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum
Instruments and Photographs
Smithsonian National Museum of American History; Smithsonian American Art Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
Edgerton Explorit Center, Aurora, Nebraska
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
George Eastman House, Still Photograph Collection, Rochester, New York

Selected Bibliography

  • Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra High-speed Photography, by Harold E. Edgerton and James R. Killian, Jr. 2d. ed. Boston: C. T. Branford Co., 1954.
  • Electronic Flash, Strobe, by Harold E. Edgerton. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
  • Moments of Vision: The Stroboscopic Revolution in Photography, by Harold E. Edgerton and James R. Killian, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979.
  • Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton, foreword by Harold Edgerton; text by Estelle Jussim; edited by Gus Kayafas. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1987. Includes biographical outline and bibliography of Edgerton's works.
  • Seeing the Unseen: Dr. Harold E. Edgerton and the wonders of Strobe Alley, introduction by James L. Enyeart; biographical essay by Douglas Collins; historical notes by Joyce E. Bedi; edited by Roger R. Bruce.Rochester, N.Y.: Pub. Trust of George Eastman House; Cambridge, Mass.: distributed by MIT Press, c1994.
  • "Harold E. Edgerton, 6 April 1903 - 4 January 1990," by Gerald L. Wilson, in The Electron and the Bit: EECS at MIT, 1902-2002, edited by John V. Guttag, pp. 63-66. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005.
Guide to the Papers of Harold E. Edgerton
Jeffrey Mifflin
(Copyright 1993)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
The processing and preservation of the collection was funded by a gift from Esther Edgerton and the Edgerton family.
  • Key to match the notebook IDs from the Edgerton Lab website of the digitized notebooks with the IASC MC-0025 collection IDs and proper titles of the notebooks.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US