A photo hangs in the third floor hallway of a building in MIT. “Milk Drop Coronet”, one of Doc Edgerton’s most famous works, illuminates the drab brick background and hallway behind the print. The photo shows an image of a milk drop falling onto a reflective surface, perfectly timed so that the drops are visible and at their peak before breaking apart from the mass of milk on the plate. Sadly, few students will travel this hallway and see this striking photo. Fewer still will learn about the long and extraordinary history behind this photo, and the incredible man who captured it.
Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton was born in 1903 in Nebraska. He attended MIT for graduate school, where he became familiar with photography and stroboscopes when he used stroboscopes to study the motion of motors and other quick-moving objects. Edgerton was very interested in teaching future generations about photography and his life experiences in general.
While he never finished or published an autobiography, he planned out sections and chapters and wrote preliminary versions of chapters. We can see in these early outlines of his book how his idea of his autobiography changed just in the months between these outlines. The second version is more condensed and basic than the first, which appeared to cover nearly every aspect of Edgerton’s life. He also included some possible titles, including “What’s up, Doc?”, “Teach Teach Teach”, “Never a Dull Moment!”, “Keep Going!”, and “Just one time more”. In these titles we get a glimpse of Edgerton’s character. He was very passionate and eager about teaching his students and others, evident from “Teach Teach Teach” and “Keep Going!”. Even just in these titles, he seems to be encouraging readers to pursue their passions and dreams, showcasing the caring professor and educator he was.
Exploring the introductory chapter of his autobiography, we can note a few aspects of both his writing and the physical objects. Looking at drafts of his introduction from 1975, 1984, and 1988, his introduction changed drastically between the first two drafts. He significantly shortened and simplified the introduction, which continued as a trend throughout the other drafts. The introduction always starts in a similar manner by stating that Edgerton’s friends had encouraged him to write down his life story, and he thought it would be a good idea and may prove helpful to future family and students. However, as the iterations progress, the physical copies change from being written on a typewriter and then edited by hand using whiteout and cutting portions of the papers out to being typed on a computer.
Edgerton’s edits were comprehensive and often, showing his dedication to forming a complete and polished autobiography. While Edgerton sadly passed away before finishing a final copy of his autobiography, these drafts serve as a fantastic way to see his thoughts and process while he was compiling his experiences. If anything, these drafts show more of Edgerton’s personality than a finalized, polished book could have.
Doc Edgerton was a pioneer of the photography field, being one of the first to take aesthetic images of bullets in flight, nuclear explosions, and milk drops hitting a surface. Many of his photographs and works went on to become well-known; he had many photographs featured in Life Magazine because they were so beautiful, and other photographs earned him medals and awards from both art and science institutions. In addition to his photographs, all of the documents he wrote throughout his long tenure help paint a beautiful picture of his devotion to teaching others. The window this collection opens displays Edgerton’s love of teaching and learning, and hopefully continues to be a part of his legacy for years to come.