High-Speed Photography


In college, I took a class in high-speed photography from Harold "Doc" Edgerton, inventor of the xenon strobe. We reproduced many of his best-known photographs in the class, but my biggest takeaway from spending time with Doc had little to do with photography.


We took the milk drop photo, the photo of a bullet ripping through a playing card, and the stroboscopic photos of golf swings and tennis serves. All the pictures were taken in darkened rooms—yes, undergraduates were shooting guns in a dark room on the third floor of Building 10. The pictures were captured by firing a xenon strobe using time-delay circuits, with microphones and other triggers. Everything was done on black and white film that we had to develop and print ourselves.


Doc had already had a long and fruitful career by that time, including the development of huge airplane-mounted strobes for night photography of wartime troop movements, and getting the contract to photograph the first nuclear tests. But he was still itching to do new things and was working on a camera with an ultrafast shutter he could use to take high-speed pictures in natural light. He wanted to take pictures of a player’s foot sinking into a football and asked our class if any of us knew a good placekicker. My roommate at the time had been the Duke University placekicking champion, which seemed to fit the bill.


But this story isn’t about photography or football, it’s about the person I saw in Doc Edgerton the day we met on MIT’s field to photograph Peter doing his stuff. Neoteny is a term used in zoology to describe animals that retain juvenile features in their adult form. It can also be used to describe mature people who have retained their youthful sense of curiosity, experimentation, and play, even as they grow old. Doc exemplified this more than anyone else I have met. He was 79 at the time and was running around like a kid on the playground, but with a sophistication that came from years of education, invention, engineering, and managing businesses.


Other highly successful people come to mind who possess similar approaches to life. Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet are good examples. You have to ask yourself if they are playful because of their success or if they are successful because of their playfulness. It may be a combination of both, but I would submit that the success follows the playfulness more than the other way around. People like being around fun, energetic, playful people, and being able to attract and influence others is a great formula for success.