Project History: Harold Edgerton and Side-Scan Sonar

Harold Edgerton, MIT electrical engineering professor from the 1930s until his death in 1989, is most famous for his work with high-speed flash photography and the "stopped time" pictures that work produced. He also, however, developed camera equipment for deep-sea photography and "side-scan sonar," which applied the electronic principles from the flash tubes to acoustics. A side-scan sonar puts a single "flash" of acoustic energy into the water and then records the echoes. When towed behind a ship the device creates long, continuous image of the seafloor. Side scan is thus the most common technology used for searching for shipwrecks in the ocean, and was responsible for finding the Titanic as well as many other shipwrecks.

This project history will work with the Edgerton papers here at the MIT archives, and describe the development of side-scan sonar, as well as a number of startup companies which emerged from Edgerton’s group. Edgerton’s notebooks are beautifully kept, with detailed descriptions of his work and many photographs. The collection contains much correspondence with Jaques Cousteau, an early proponent of Edgerton’s technologies, and many descriptions of expeditions around the world where Edgerton used his devices (often in a prototype state) to search for shipwrecks and even the Loch Ness monster.

Possible themes: development of high-speed pulse electronics, intellectual continuity between strobe photography and side-scan sonar, "strobe culture" transforming into "undersea culture," relationship between testing and development in Edgerton’s lab, technologies emerging from the lab and into commercial products.

Engineering Concentrations: Devices, Circuits, and Sys.; Electrodynamics and Energy Sys.

Secondary Sources:

A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, Ch. 8, Wildes and Lindgren

Sonar Images, Edgerton (Prentice Hall)

Video, "How Fast is Fast."

Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton by Jussim, Kayafas, Hayafas (MIT Press)

Edgerton, Electronic Flash, Strobe (MIT Press)

Seeing the Unseen: Dr. Harold E Edgerton and the Wonders of Strobe Alley , Roger R. Bruce ed.

Archival Sources:

MIT Archives, MC 25, Edgerton Papers Lab Notebooks, Technical Specifications, Trips, Maps, Correspondence, Publications, Cousteau Correspondence

Possible Contacts / Interviews:

Charlie Mazel – director, MIT Edgerton Center

Joyce Beatty – at Smithsonian, did rsrch. for Edgerton foundation

Marty Klein – founder of side-scan sonar company (Edgerton student)

Ed Curley – founder of EPC, ocean instrumentation company (Edgerton student)

Sam Raymond – founder of Benthos, ocean camera and instrument company (Edgerton student)

Bob Rines – Edgerton patent attorney