Seeing in the Dark: Aerial Recon in WWII

The Lemelson Center’s annual symposium took place on Oct. 25 and this year we explored the role technology and invention plays in our surveillance society. You can watch the archived video on UStream. In this post, we look at one invention that allowed for wartime surveillance from the sky.

Many of us who work at the National Museum of American History have a favorite object or two. Mine is part of the photographic history collections. It’s a General Electric Mazda FT-17 flash lamp, whose prototype was invented by Harold “Doc” Edgerton at MIT to take aerial reconnaissance photographs at night. Why do I like it? Well, OK, I’m a photography geek. But the tube is elegant yet cool, and it has a great story.

Edgerton had originally invented an electronic stroboscope to study high-speed machinery in motion. But he soon turned his light (and camera) on a vast range of subjects. Applying his solid engineering training, vivid imagination, and good business sense, Edgerton continually adapted and commercialized the technology he had created. In the 1940s, this work took Doc into the sky.

Major George Goddard of the army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) visited Edgerton at MIT in 1939. Goddard had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917 and was appointed instructor of aerial photographic interpretation at the School of Military Aeronautics the following year. He knew firsthand both the value and limitations of aerial photography using existing technology. So he asked if Edgerton and his colleagues could build a strobe that would be powerful enough to take photographs from a plane, at night, from a height of a mile. “We can do that,” Doc said. “We haven’t got it in the house, but we can do that.” (1) That confidence produced an electronic flash system for night aerial photography that delivered information impossible to obtain in any other way.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system. The flash tube (lower center) fits into the reflector at the left. The camera (center), which looks a lot like an oversized 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, is sitting on top of one of the capacitor banks. The serviceman is holding the control box. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

The strobe that Doc originally designed to photograph events from the bleachers of Boston Garden provided a technical foundation for his electronic flash for military night aerial photography. But the components of this new flash system were bigger and more powerful than anything Doc had yet built. The flash tube is a tough monster; its 30 inches of strong, quartz glass, coiled into a xenon-filled spiral, withstood the 4,000 volts discharged through it. The tube fit into a reflector mounted in the plane’s belly or tail. Banks of capacitors, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were slung on the plane’s bomb racks and supplied power to the flash tube. A direct contact synchronized the flash to the equally oversized aerial camera.

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

In April 1941, the first experimental unit–camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector–was mounted in a B-18 and tested over Boston. But the system’s most famous test began on June 5, 1944, when an A-20 equipped with the flash took off for France, ahead of the D-day invasion forces. Doc recorded the results in his laboratory notebook on June 7, 1944: “The A-20 (No 449) went on its first mission on Monday night June 5 arriving at the target on June 6 around 130 am. The target was two road intersections south of Caen. Due to clouds the pictures were taken at 800 ft – 2000 ft. The photos were very good but there was no overlap. Some flack [sic] from ground machine guns was encountered at a town named Coustances. Villedieu-les-Poêles was photographed. I stayed up until 5 am to see the negatives out of the dryer.” (2)

Doc continued to tweak the giant flash system even as it saw use in many more missions during the war. One of my favorite runs, though, took place in August 1944, when Edgerton was testing the flash in England. Stonehenge, standing alone on the Salisbury Plain, proved a perfect subject for his experiments.

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. The adaptation of the flash tube from peacetime photography of things like rodeos in Boston Garden to wartime reconnaissance flights over Europe is a testament to Edgerton’s creative mind. Throughout his life, Doc welcomed each new inquiry. “If you don’t wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and want to do something,” Edgerton quipped, “why, you’re wasting time.” (3)

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum


(1) “History of the Strobe Light,” Edgerton Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., November 27, 1984. Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 116, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(2) Notebook 15, 30 Jan. 1944 – 16 Feb. 1945, pp. 23-24, Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 53, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(3) WGBH Nova, “Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines.” Original broadcast: January 15, 1985.

This post first appeared in Prototype, May 2010 edition.

Where Art and Tech Meet

A couple months ago, I was invited to write an introductory essay for Masters of Abstraction, a new book by German photographer Peter Badge. The book is a collection of portraits of winners of the Fields and Abel prizes in mathematics, and the Turing and Nevanlinna awards in computing. These are the top prizes in their fields, all modeled more or less on the Nobel, which has no category for mathematics.

I first met Peter about fifteen years ago when I was co-curating an international exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize. He was commissioned to photograph the laureates for the exhibition and accompanying volume. When I watched Peter at work I was immediately struck by two things: first, his uncanny ability to relate to the laureates on a personal level and to capture on film his sense of their personalities and deep humanity, however remote or abstract their research; and, second, his stubborn insistence on sticking with analog photography and old-fashioned photographic film—specifically black-and-white Kodak Tri-X—just when digital technology was taking over his medium. Over the years, he has never gone digital, despite the near-disappearance of Tri-X from the shelves of photo stores. These observations prompted me to reflect on the tools of photographers, human creativity, and machine “intelligence.”

Vint Cerf, 2004 Turing Award Winner

Vint Cerf won the Turing Award in 2004 with Bob E. Kahn for “pioneering work on internetworking.” c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Let me try to explain why I think this matters. It is conceivable that Alan Turing, mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, and pioneer of artificial intelligence after whom the prize is named, could have ultimately rendered Peter’s work obsolete. Turing’s famous “Turing Test,” proposed in 1950, is defined in Wikipedia as a “test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of an actual human.” As far as I know, Turing himself never ascribed any deep existential meaning to his test.  However, in the popular mind, it carries the implication that smart machines, perhaps in the not too distant future, will surpass and eventually replace the brains of intelligent, even super intelligent, humans.


HAL 9000, via Wikimedia Commons.

Should that appalling day arrive when the descendants of HAL 9000, the single-minded and omniscient computer of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, become masters of the universe and solve all conceivable mathematical riddles, would we still want to buy Peter’s book? Would we want to view photographs of human also-rans in some future mathematical Olympiad totally dominated by machines? Granted, it would be interesting and probably comforting to study the humanity, character, and creativity written in their faces. But, in the end, would it matter?

For Peter, the answer to this question is surely that yes, it matters, and for a myriad human reasons. Intelligence is ultimately a human concept. In that sense, we can reasonably ask if intelligence can ever truly be “artificial.” Peter’s goal is not only to honor prizewinners, but to probe the mysteries of human creativity. He knows instinctively that creativity can never be reduced to computer algorithms. It is ironic to think that Turing himself, who lived a brilliant but tormented life, would have been the worst possible candidate for machine replacement.

That takes us back to Peter’s loyalty to analog film, his chosen and evidently natural medium. I have not asked Peter this question, but I think I know why he has not yet gone digital. I suspect he resists the imposition of a computerized process between himself and his human subjects.

Shafrira Goldwasser, 2012 Turing Award winner.

Shafrira Goldwasser won the 2012 Turing Award along with Silvio Micali for their work in the field of cryptography. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013.

There are suggestive parallels here with the creative processes of mathematicians. Evolving computer technology has changed how mathematicians work. Abstract mathematics increasingly involves computers; the verification of proofs is one example. But, just as photographers “see” their final image in their mind’s eye before actually taking the shot, mathematicians often visualize their proofs in advance. Both photographers and mathematicians share this sensory, almost tactile feeling for their creations.

Abstraction is central to science and mathematics, but the term has other, equally rich resonances. In this sense, the title of Badge’s book—Master of Abstraction—plays brilliantly on the association with masters of abstract art. Even die-hard believers in machine intelligence cannot credibly claim that artists will eventually cede their studios to ranks of painting robots wielding brushes and palettes. The creative theories and inventions honored in Peter’s book are not just equivalent to art, they have become art and speak to the identity of all forms of creativity.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that photography, too, is all about numbers: film speeds,
f-stops, shutter speeds, focal lengths, light intensity, even the “golden ratio” applied to framing an image. This is just as true for analog film as it is for digital photography, though digital has added a few more numerical parameters to play with. At some point though, Peter Badge, like all genuine practitioners of his art form, puts the numbers behind him and proceeds on the wings of creative instinct. And this is where Peter and his subjects merge in body, mind, and spirit, in a realm where numbers become sheer beauty.

Sergei Novikov, 1970 winner of the Fields Medal.

Sergei Novikov won the Fields Medal in 1970 for his work in algebraic topology, most notably the Novikov conjecture, which concerns homotopy invariance of certain polynomials in the Pontryagin classes of a manifold. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of antiquity, is featured on the Fields Medal for mathematics. A Latin inscription from Astronomica, by the Roman poet Manilius, surrounds Archimedes likeness:

you are seeking to pass beyond your understanding and make yourself master of the universe….

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

In a title match for “Master of the Universe” between Archimedes and HAL 9000, where would you put your money? I know where I would.

Photography: The Invention that Keeps on Giving

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 5.16.39 PMPhotography is definitely the gift that just keeps on givingand in different forms! Thank you, Louis Daguerre, for inventing photography; without this gift we would not be able to document momentous events in our life (like my first time at the White House to help out at the Easter Egg Roll 2013), take #selfie duckface pics to post them on Instagram, or upload quick vids of ourselves to Vine.

If you haven’t explored the wonder of Vine, it is a product that Twitter acquired that allows for sharing quick, six second, looping videos. Brevity is key here, something that Twitter’s 140 character messages do so well. It doesn’t seem like very long, but it’s surprising what you can share in six seconds, especially when you get creative. Vine Vids are all about abbreviation—”The shortened form of something larger.”

Our Meta-Meme-Modern age of documenting and categorizing every moment of our lives, and then sharing it with the masses in small digestible chunks, is done with such urgency, yet some do not think about the technology behind it. It’s fun to see these various digital methods reference the past. All of those wonderful filters that various apps use reference the analogue processes—Van Dyke Brown, Cyanotype, Cross-Processed, Black and White filters—that have been done in darkrooms with hazardous chemicals for decades. I have quite a bit of experience producing images the old-school way and love it! However, I also love that I don’t have to risk my life anymore using potassium cyanide or silver nitrate. Working in the darkroom was never a quick process, but more of a zen experience—something that could never be rushed. Current digital technology is often almost instantaneous.

I find it quite interesting these days that videos/gifs appear to be the next best thing to push content out into the aether. These small, bite-sized videos serve as an appetizer to an idea, concept, or expression, allowing the user to carefully create a potent and concentrated snippet of their world. The small size of the files not only makes them faster to upload, but also easier for the viewer to digest. Do small files equal short attention spans? Has the advancement in technology in photography spoiled us to seek a quick turn around for visual pay off?

Recently, I picked up a book in the library, Photography Changes Everything, a collaboration between Aperture and the Smithsonian, which is a fascinating collection of images and responses to how the image changes and shapes everything in our lives. Many experts, writers, inventors, and public figures from different professional backgrounds have contributed to this book, telling the stories of how their lives have been shaped or changed by photography. Contributors include the Smithsonian’s Curator of Photographic History Shannon Thomas Perich as well as John Baldessari, John Waters,  Hugh Hefner, and others. Check out the book or visit the Photography Changes Everything website and see how the photographic image does indeed change everything around us. Photography has certainly changed my life and made me into the New Media Specialist that I am today here at the Lemelson Center.