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Before Harold Edgerton rigged a milk dropper next to a timer and a camera of his own invention, it was virtually impossible to take a good photo in the dark without bulky equipment. It was similarly futile to try to photograph a fleeting moment.

But in the 1950s at his lab at MIT, Edgerton started tinkering with a process that would change the future of photography. There the electrical-engineering professor combined high-tech strobe lights with camera shutter motors to capture moments imperceptible to the naked eye. Milk Drop Coronet, his revolutionary stop-motion photograph, freezes the impact of a drop of milk on a table, a crown of liquid discernible to the camera for only a millisecond. The picture proved that photography could advance human understanding of the physical world, and the technology Edgerton used to take it laid the foundation for the modern electronic flash.
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Seconds. There it is. Sometimes it’s no use at all. Sometimes it’s tremendous value.

– Harold Edgerton

Edgerton worked for years to perfect his milk-drop photographs, many of which were black and white; one version was featured in the first photography exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. And while the man known as Doc captured other blink-and-you-missed-it moments, like balloons bursting and a bullet piercing an apple, his milk drop remains a quintessential example of photography’s ability to make art out of evidence.harold edgertonharold-edgerton-02 harold-edgerton-03 harold-edgerton-04 harold-edgerton-05 harold-edgerton-06 harold-edgerton-07 harold-edgerton-08 harold-edgerton-09 harold-edgerton-10 harold-edgerton-11 harold-edgerton-12 harold-edgerton-13
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All photographs are © Harold Edgerton, MIT. Courtesy of Mit Museum

TIME 100PHOTOS – Explore the stories behind 100 images that changed the world, selected by Time and an international team of curators.

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