How Harold Edgerton’s ‘Bullet through Apple’ Made Time Stand Still

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

In Napwe look at the power of a single photograph, telling stories of how modern and historical images have been created.

Exploding with energy but perfectly still, Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s 1964 image of a .30 caliber bullet tearing through a city block showcased an otherwise invisible moment in captivating detail. The scene took on a serene, sculptural beauty as the disintegrating apple skin burst open against a deep blue background.

The image is widely seen as a work of Art. However, more importantly to its creator, it was also a feat of electrical engineering. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor used it to illustrate a lecture, famously titled “How to Make Applesauce,” in which he explained the pioneering flash technology that helped him take the photo.

Edgerton, who died in 1990 at the age of 86, is considered the father of high-speed photography. The camera’s shutter speeds were too slow to capture a bullet flying at 2,800 feet per second, but its strobe flashes, a precursor to modern strobes, created such short bursts of light that a well-timed photograph, taken in a room dark, made it seem as if time had stopped. The results were fascinating and often messy.

“We used to joke that it took a third of a microsecond (a millionth of a second) to take the picture, and all morning to clean up,” his former student and teaching assistant, J. Kim Vandiver, recalled in a video call from Massachusetts.

Whereas early cameramen had experimented with pyrotechnic “flash powders” that combined metallic fuels and oxidizing agents to produce a brief, bright chemical reaction, the Nebraska-born Edgerton created a flash that was much shorter and easier to control. His breakthrough was more a matter of physics than chemistry: After arriving at MIT in the 1920s, he developed a flash tube filled with xenon gas that, when subjected to high voltage, caused electricity to jump between two electrodes for a split second. .

By the time he snapped the shutter on his now-famous apple photo, Edgerton had developed a microflash that used clean air instead of xenon. It had also produced decades of known images: hummingbirds in flight, golf clubs hitting balls and even nuclear bomb explosions. (During World War II, Edgerton developed a special “rapatronic” camera, or fast electronics, for the Atomic Energy Commission that could control the amount of light entering the camera during explosions.)
Another of Edgerton's famous photos, taken in 1957, shows the crown-shaped splash made by drops of milk.

Another of Edgerton’s famous photos, taken in 1957, shows the crown-shaped splash made by drops of milk. Credit: Harold Edgerton/MIT; courtesy of Palm Press

However, it was his vignette photos from the 1960s that demonstrated some of this most memorable. According to Vandiver, who still works at MIT as a professor of mechanical engineering, the challenge was not to produce a flash but to turn on the camera at just the right moment. Human reactions were too slow to take the photo manually, so Edgerton used the sound of the bullet as the trigger.

“There would be a microphone out of the picture, just below,” Vandiver said. “So when the shock wave from the bullet hit the microphone, the microphone fired the flash and then you closed (the shutter afterwards).”

Making an icon

Over the years, Edgerton and his students pointed a rifle at objects such as bananas, balloons, and playing cards. For Vandiver, the reason why the apple, along with a image from 1957 of a splashing drop of milk — became one of Edgerton’s defining photographs is, in part, its simplicity. “You get caught up in the imagination … and immediately you understand what it is,” she said.

There was another factor at play: Edgerton’s artistic eye. The compositional beauty of his images led to them being republished in newspapers and magazines around the world, and more than 100 of his photos are in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art today. However, Edgerton refused the additional title.

“Don’t pass me off as an artist,” he has been quoted as saying. “I’m an engineer. I look for the facts, just the facts.”

While Vandiver said there is “definitely an artistic legacy” in Edgerton’s visual experiments, which advanced the field of photography, his research has also had a major impact on science and industry. His hands-on approach lives on at MIT edgerton centerwhich was established in his honor in 1992. Vandiver, who serves as the center’s director, said all students are encouraged to take a picture of their own bullet.

“We still teach the course, and students still think of weird things to take pictures of,” she said, recalling recent images of bullet-shattered colored chalk and lipstick. “Apples are boring now.”

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