MIT: Taken from a building in Boston with an aerial-type flash unit.9
The changes in Edgerton's research and in the technology focus of his engineering career are highly correlated to the developments that were shaping MIT's vision during the same eras. With Vannevar Bush, Carl Compton, James Killian and many other visionary academic leaders, MIT experienced significant changes from early the 1920's to end of the 1950's. The changes led by these individuals were determined by their perception of what would make MIT the center of scientific and technological developments, inventions and innovations as well their responses to the events that were shaping the future of the United States.
When Compton was leading the Institute's reform between 1930-1948 to gain "techno-specific competence"1, he was faced with two significant events, the Depression in 1929 and the entrance of the U.S. to the Second World War.
In the pre-war era, his aspirations had a relatively slow start. Compton was bothered by the power the industry had over MIT:
MIT's over-dependence on industry, and more specifically on medium size corporations in technologically stable industries, had led to a strong emphasis on practicality and immediate utility in engineering education. It had transformed the Institute into a trouble-shooting agency for industry and thwarted its autonomy.2
Nonetheless, he promoted consulting for the industry provided that the research done for specific problem would foster new areas to be explored. The association with industry was also related to the fact that the advisory committee in charge of the engineering department's curriculum was composed of leaders in the industry from companies like GE, Edison Illuminating Co of Boston, American Telephone and Telegraph Co of Boston, and Westinghouse.
A photo of a thread machine taken by Edgerton for an industrial client.10
For Edgerton, this technical consulting soon became a major part of his work. Following his thesis, Edgerton continued working in his lab, and Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert Grier soon joined him. Germeshausen and Grier were hired as research assistants without pay, so in order to support themselves during the depression, the three men worked as consultants to solve industry's problems using the stroboscope.
Edgerton had done his thesis on the generator motors during which he started using the stroboscope as a tool to observe the rotational rotor motions. It was not surprising that Edgerton's research on electric power engineering had led to a completely different innovation for flash technology just as Bush's work on power systems led to his invention of the analog computer. Moreover, during the times when Duguld Jackson was the department head for Electrical Engineering (1907-1935), interests of students were not only in power systems, but they were also curious about electronics and communications. This led to more room and excitement for further research.
The unofficial partnership of Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier started as they got involved in consulting projects that came to their attention through MIT. Edgerton was particularly talented in applying his technology to specific problems at hand that were to be answered in these industry engagements. Besides pure research, Jackson also promoted cross-departmental collaboration and membership in academic societies in line with Compton’s focus on a more industry-independent MIT. This got Edgerton involved in more scientific research with other departments like the chemical engineering and mechanical engineering at MIT.
Nonetheless, visionaries like Vannevar Bush encouraged young Edgerton to explore further:
Regarding the motion pictures, he observed, "It is interesting to note that the light intensities produced are very large indeed. Mr. Edgerton used a stroboscope which had a period of illumination of nearly 10 microseconds occurring once each cycle and yet was able to obtain sufficient light for photography. The instantaneous candlepower of the source is hence enormous, as may readily be computed. This appears to have interesting possibilities for further development."3
The Institute's focus on purer research in the pre-war era was a start to the transformation of MIT. These concepts developed and implanted in the pillars of thought at MIT gave their real results during the Second World War and its aftermath. The transformation of MIT into a "science-based technical university"4 was very much dependent on the change of roles in the power relationship of MIT and industry. This change was brought about as more government funding started flowing into MIT and made MIT more independent of industry money. This happened during WWII as MIT developed unique and unmatched competencies to solve the problems of the federal government. Without doubt, as an active member of the MIT body, Edgerton also took his role in developing his technology for the military.
Before the USA entered WWII, Compton had mentioned that MIT was always alert to the needs of national emergency situations, yet "requests for technical expertise from the military will not given highest priority in other circumstances."5 However, this changed in his 1940 report, as the participation of the U.S. in WWII was clearer:
We are fortunate to serve as an institution whose objective in respect to national needs are so clear-cut and constructive… In a time of military crisis, technological efficiency in production as well as in design of instruments of defense and offense is the basic element of national defense… We should make [best evaluation of national importance] possible by postponing less urgent research projects, by internal rearrangement of teaching schedules, and by carrying out a more than normal per capita burden of work.6
Like every corner of MIT, the Strobe Lab was highly mobilized to serve the military. Major Goddard of Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio visited Edgerton during the summer of 1939 and presented Edgerton the problem of nighttime aerial photography and the need for Edgerton’s control circuits and powerful flash. This soon opened a whole new line of applications for Edgerton to explore and a whole new value network for his technology. Without doubt, Edgerton’s imagination and free spirit as well as the technical curiosity, which was highly nurtured by the atmosphere and people of MIT, made him highly successful during the war years.
By the end of the war, MIT had developed a rich legacy of ideas and methods that was initially build to help military but was a new bed for the river of ideas. John Buchard, the author of Q.E.D: MIT in the World War II recognizes the potential of "wealth of experience" and the great opportunity for "commerce of thought" within the members of the new and bigger MIT family.7 This was both an advantage to the new leaders of MIT and a disadvantage.
Both Compton and Killian were faced with the challenge of reversing the direction of research from military applications to pure research. Compton started a very strict re-deployment for peace, which affected Edgerton as well as Germeshausen and Grier. Their unofficial partnership was asked to change into a corporation serving mainly the government, specifically the Atomic Energy Commission.
In his unpublished autobiography, Edgerton narrates this decision as:
After the war, the then Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) requested MIT to set up a comprehensive test system at Eniwetok Island with Grier in charge. MIT said "No," why not have the partners (Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier) form a corporation to do the job? This was done and as a consequence, EG&G, INC. was started in 1947.8
Bernard O’Keefe, a later partner to EG&G, also talks about the formation of the corporation as a result of MIT’s focus on pure academic research in his book Nuclear Hostages, 1983:
At the time, most of the MIT faculty was back in force, ready to resume teaching and nonmilitary research. MIT and other universities had had a gutful of military research. When the MIT director of research programs heard about the proposed tenfold expansion of our little project [firing of nuclear bombs], he balked, saying that MIT was trying to get out of military research, not into it. He suggested to Grier he and his partners form a corporation to take over the government business and move it off campus. Edgerton and Germeshausen did not care much one way or the other, but Grier thought it was a great idea, so the corporation Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier Inc, was formed. (p.126-7)
But despite the incorporation of the company, Edgerton was still as active on the MIT front as he used to be. His desire to teach and discover more did not go away and was even more supported by the variety of things he worked on during the war. The scale of his projects had increased immensely.home