Charles Davis

There was a saying popular in the 60s that everyone is separated by anyone else in six introductions or less. I came across an article that reminded me of that. I was on the web last week surfing news articles about scuba diving. I came across an article on the MIT website about a photographic show featuring photographs taken underwater with a new high speed camera. The article itself was not very interesting.The statement that the photo exhibit was created by the scientist who took the photos also used kickstarter to fund the exhibit and that they were done during the Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31 did get my attention.

I followed the article to her website and found that Grace Young after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from MIT went scuba diving.  A dive that lasted two weeks at 60 feet as a scientist of the Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31. That was my first WOW. On her website is a link to a video, which showed some of the footage taken during the mission with the high speed camera called the Edgertronic. It showed details of some marine life that moves too fast for the human eye to see details. A Second WOW, well really more than one.

“We thought the videos would be scientifically interesting for marine biologists — showing the dynamics of each creature’s movements — but they’re also artistically appealing,” said Young.

I followed the link to the Edgertronic camera, which itself was a kickstarter project, the camera has the ability of record 18,000 frames per second. Your standard movie theater film is 30 frames per second.The camera was not designed for underwater photography so a special case was made. Mike Matter who designed and founded the company that builds the camera is also a MIT grad.His goal was to produce an inexpensive camera for research purposes. At less than $6,000, it is about the same as a week’s rental of other cameras. He named the camera after one of his professors and a man often called, among other titles, the Father of High Speed Photography,Harold “Doc” Edgerton.

Doc Edgerton was an early expert in scientific photography and paved the way for many scientific breakthrough. He adapted a little used research device to be used with a camera introducing the world to what we now call the flash or strobe.The man is also known as the Father of Modern Sonar. The side scan sonar is just one of his developments.

The MIT website says this about Doc Edgerton and his advancesin ocean exploration and marine biology. “Harold “Doc” Edgerton was first drawn to underwater photography because of a leaky box. It all started in the mid-1930s, when E. Newton Harvey, a bioluminescence expert, approached him for advice on photographing phosphorescent deep-sea fishes for an upcoming book. Never one to refuse helping anyone, Edgerton assembled the camera and instructed Newton to encase it in a watertight box to lower into the depths. But soon, upon bumping into the author in Harvard Square, Edgerton learned that the box had distorted and cracked, allowing seawater in and ruining Newton’s project. From then on, Edgerton was determined to “see through” seawater with a camera of his own making. “Why not a spherical design or even a cylindrical one?” Edgerton wrote once. “Soon I was sketching all sorts of designs.” 

By 1937, He had developed a camera for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The camera was successful but the lights scared away the fish. In the early 40s he combined high speed cameras and a strobe instead of a constant light. Additionally he develop a trigger where the flash fired and images taken when a fish broke a beam of light. These items had never been combined before. So now we see that “Doc” Edgerton help developed not only high speed photography, but also brought us flash photography and advances in underwater Photography. But nothing been said yet about sonar.

His interest in sonar and his developments were influenced by a man he met who called him Papa Flash.  In the early 1950s, the Doc had a good relationship with National Geographic. In 1952 they approached him saying there was a Frenchman who wanted to talk to someone about underwater photography. Edgerton picked up the visitor a few days later at the train station and within two hours the man was in a MIT pool trying out a camera designed by Edgerton. That was a start of a long friendship and collaboration between a MIT professor and a French Marine scientist, Jacques Cousteau. As a problem in the 1930s led to his interest in underwater photography, a problem of Cousteau’s led to his interest in Sonar and his later achievements. The problem was how to judge distances in murky water so that the camera could be focused. He adapted sonar principles to develop the pinger, a device able to preciously measure distance. These principals later were developed into what we now known as side scan sonar. Papa Flash was a part of many of the Cousteau studies and helped design Cousteau’s underwater scooters and devices for submersibles, including some of the first ROV’s

I thought it was interesting that on mission 31, we could trace a high speed camera back to Fabien Cousteau's grandfather. We often associate Jacques Cousteau with the development of scuba diving because of the Aqua-lung, his initial exploration of coral reefs and his later efforts at marine conservation. This circle of WOW shows how much impact he had with others in a wider range of marine activities.

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