High-speed Filming of Hummingbirds – Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton (1936)

Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton (1903 – 1990) was a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. He invented the stroboscopic electric flash to capture events happening at incredible speeds including the explosion of an atomic bomb. Even in today’s standards these images are hard to capture.

His uncle was pivotal in beginning of his innovation filled career. He introduced him to the world of cameras. Edgerton invented and developed many different cameras including underwater cameras. One of his cameras was tested by Jacques-Yves Cousteau during the famous 1953 expedition to the Antikythera shipwreck.

The 1936 footage of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) in flight while feeding from an artificial feeder using a multi-flash apparatus is one of the most striking early biological films. He learned that Mrs. Lawrence Webster of New Hampshire was hand feeding these hummingbirds and were tame enough to be filmed. No hummingbird documentary would be possible without high-speed filming. Research focused on hummingbird flight dynamics heavily rely on high-speed filming.

During an experiment using a basic computer, Edgerton realized that the overheating warning lights blinking at 60 times a second seemed to freeze the moving parts of its motor as if they were standing still. It dawned on Edgerton that bright, split-second bursts of light could reveal events happening at ultra high-speed.

The following archival footage from MIT shows working principles of Edgarton’s high-speed cameras. Edgarton’s foundational work now enabled development of state of the art cameras including Phantom Flex which was used by National Geographic in 2012 to film running Cheetahs in collaboration with the Cincinati Zoo.

High Speed Photography: National Geographic Society Lecture – Harold Edgerton (1965) from Nature Documentaries on Vimeo.

 

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