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"Doc" and D-Day: How a Nebraska Scientist Helped Ensure the Allies' Victory

As the old saying goes, "Things can change in a flash." Sometimes these rapid changes are good ones, other times they are not so good. Sometimes change is slow, and we wonder when a quick, positive change will happen. During World War II, the Allies experienced a long, challenging advance towards victory, and many of the "flash" changes came in the form of bombs and gunfire.

However, there were also other "flashes" in the dark days of the war, and these came from a myriad of sources. From soldiers fighting on the front lines, to the medical workers in the field hospitals; from students back home sending quilts and cards, to ordinary citizens running resistance operations; many inspiring stories have been told regarding this pivotal time in human history.

One such story starts here in Nebraska, where an eager student of electrical engineering strived to shine his own light into the field of scientific endeavor, and in the process also caused things to "change in a flash" on the other side of the globe and the history of the world.

Edgerton's Nebraska Roots

Harold Eugene Edgerton was born in Fremont, NE on April 6, 1903, to Frank and Mary Edgerton. When Harold was twelve years old, his family moved to Aurora, NE. Throughout his childhood, Harold developed a keen interest in electricity and photography. His experiments (or "experiences" as he preferred to call them) began at home, where he turned his parents' kitchen into his first darkroom, and one of his first light experiments involved directing a makeshift searchlight from atop the roof of the family home. (Little did he know how much the latter experiment would foreshadow his crucial service during World War II.)

During his youth, Harold worked for the Nebraska Light and Power Company. He graduated from Aurora High School in 1921, and from there went on to study electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska. To pay his way through college, Harold worked as an electrician in the city of Lincoln. After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1925, he went on to study further at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA. While there he ran into another graduate from Aurora High School, Esther Garrett. While the two knew each other in high school, they never dated during that time. However, after meeting again, they soon developed a relationship, and the two were married on February 25, 1928. To this union were born three children - William, Robert and Mary.

"Doc" and the Development of Stroboscope Photography

Eventually, Harold became a professor at MIT, during which time he earned the nickname "Doc" from his students and colleagues. Doc became well-known in the scientific community for his development of the stroboscope, which allowed for clear, still images of fast-moving objects to finally be captured. By Doc Edgerton's time, the principles of strobe light photography had been known for nearly a century, but creating the technology capable of capturing well-defined still images was proving difficult. In order to capture one of these still images, early photographers knew they had to do one of two things - either open and close the camera shutter quickly, or illuminate the moving object briefly with a short, powerful flash of light.

With his stroboscope, Doc Edgerton was able to overcome these challenges in the late 1920's, and "in a flash" the resulting photographs taken with his technology soon became famous around the world. Doc's work also entered the art scene, with several of his photos being featured in art galleries alongside other famous works. Many of his photos were displayed at MIT in the hallway outside of Doc Edgerton's lab, earning that hallway the nickname, "Strobe Alley."

One day, in 1939, a representative from the U.S. military would make his way down Strobe Alley in order to recruit Doc Edgerton for a task that would help shine a light into the darkness of World War II.

Doc Edgerton and D-Day

In 1939, Doc Edgerton was approached by Lt. Colonel George Goddard, who came to Edgerton's lab at MIT with a request from the U.S. military. World War II had begun in Europe by this time, and while the United States would not officially enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, they were still bracing themselves for the possibility of going to war, and working in the meantime to support the Allied forces with supplies and resources. One of these resources was new technology, and Goddard came to Doc Edgerton to see if Edgerton would be interested in helping the Allies develop new aerial nighttime reconnaissance photography. Goddard told Edgerton that they believed Doc's stroboscope technology could prove powerful enough to fulfill this great need.

Doc Edgerton accepted the call to action, and was soon over in Europe helping to adapt his stroboscope photography for aerial nighttime reconnaissance. The resulting equipment - the General Electric Mazda FT-17 flash lamp - included a strobe lamp that could create a beam of light that lasted about 1/1000th of a second, was bright enough to illuminate large areas from thousands of feet up in the air, and was also known to burn so hot that it could char wood at about one foot away. At the time, it was the most powerful flash photographic equipment in the world, and the equipment required to run it weighed around 720 lbs. The aircraft that would carry Doc Edgerton's equipment on nighttime reconnaissance missions was the Douglas A-20 Havoc.

After adapting this technology for the A-20, Edgerton needed volunteer pilots to help run test flights for it. Unfortunately, Edgerton had a hard time getting any pilots to volunteer at first, as they were more interested in flying for combat as opposed to photography. However, Edgerton found a rather unorthodox way of motivating the pilots to volunteer by notifying them that the first test flights would be taking place over a nudist camp outside of London. Edgerton was then flooded with volunteers. When asked about this episode later in life, Edgerton simply responded with, "I'm a practical guy."

As the test flights continued, Doc would often go up on the flights himself, both for the sake of studying how his technology performed, and also forming comradery between himself and the flight crews. Doc's adapted stroboscope had proved to work extremely well during the test flights, and was being used in the field by Allied nighttime reconnaissance pilots in the days leading up to the D-Day invasion. With Doc's stroboscope, the Allied forces were able to get clear shots of where the enemy forces were (and where they were not), and thus the planning and timing for the D-Day invasion was aided by these photographs.

A Brief Overview of D-Day

Taking place on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France, D-Day is remembered for being a pivotal battle in the history of World War II. Originally codenamed, "Operation Neptune," D-Day was part of the larger "Operation Overlord" - a.k.a. the Battle for Normandy (June 6, 1944 - August 30, 1944) - which sought to establish a foothold for the Allied forces in mainland Europe. Thus, D-Day was a monumental battle as it marked the beginning of the Allied advance towards Nazi Germany, and ultimately the liberation of Europe.

In Numbers

After years of planning, before dawn on June 6, the Allied forces began the largest amphibious (sea-to-land) invasion in history, involving more than 160,000 Allied troops, around 73,000 of which were Americans. For the invasion, five codenamed beaches in Normandy were landed on - Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno. Of the five beaches, the American forces were assigned to two - Omaha and Utah. The invasion of the five beaches required the support of over 5,000 ships and over 13,000 aircraft.

The exact number of casualties from D-Day is still unknown to this day, though it is estimated that over 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives on D-Day (around 2,500 of which were Americans), and more than 5,000 Allied troops were wounded. It is estimated that between 4,000-9,000 German troops were either killed, wounded or went missing during D-Day, bringing the total number of casualties combined from both sides to somewhere between 13,000-18,000.

The Name

Interestingly, there are discrepancies about what exactly the "D" in D-Day stands for. Some say it stands for, "designation day," "decision day," "doomsday," "depart day," "disembark day," or simply, "day" (as "D" was used as a military code for "day," like how "H-Hour" stands for the time when an attack is set to begin). While there has never been a fully-agreed-upon consensus about what the "D" in D-Day stands for, when asked about it, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was quoted as saying, "Be advised that any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date;' therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.” Thus, according to Gen. Eisenhower, "D-Day" stands for "departed date."

In any event, no matter how people may interpret the meaning of the "D" in D-Day, there is no doubt that the event proved to be of great importance for the Allies' victory in World War II, and it was accomplished through the great skill, courage and sacrifices of all involved, including Dr. Harold Eugene Edgerton.

For his service during the war, Doc Edgerton was given a Certificate of Appreciation from the United States War Department, and in 1946 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom.

Brief but Bright

“He’s infectious in the way he encourages people to go out and do things, to try things. He gets across a lot of conviction that people can do things they think they can’t. He challenges them to dream.” - Robert Rines, MIT graduate, when speaking about Doc Edgerton

Isn't it amazing how such a brief flash of light can capture a moment in time forever? How something that comes and goes so quickly can still leave a lasting impression? Perhaps in addition to the technicalities of electrical engineering, Doc Edgerton's story can also teach us about how brief "flashes" of light in life can have lasting effects, even when the darkness around feels vast. For some of us, the call to bring a flash of light into the dark may be for something as dramatic as D-Day, while for others it may be for things closer to home. Even if we feel that what we have to contribute is only small or "brief" in the grand scheme of things, it can still shine "bright" at just the right time, and perhaps make that "change in a flash" someone has been waiting for.


Associated Press. PBS News Hour. "Here are some key facts about D-Day ahead of the 79th anniversary of the World War II invasion." Las modified June 5, 2023.,killed%20around%2020%2C000%20French%20civilians.

"Dr. Harold Edgerton Is Awarded Medal of Freedom For Service." Aurora News-Register, April 12, 1946.

"Edgerton Develops Photo-Flash Camera." Aurora News-Register, February 2, 1945.

Edgerton Explorit Center. Aurora, NE. Last accessed June 5, 2024.

Gray, Paul E. "Unforgettable 'Doc' Edgerton." Reader's Digest, January 1991. 59-63.

"New Photoflash Tube Designed by Edgerton." Aurora News-Register, June 22, 1945.

Plainsman Museum archives. Aurora, NE. Last accessed June 5, 2024.

U.S. Army. "D-Day." Last accessed June 5, 2024.

Vandiver, J. Kim and Pagan Kennedy. "Harold Eugene Edgerton: A Biographical Memoir." Biographical Memoirs. Vol. 86. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005.

Zwingle, Erla. "'Doc' Edgerton: The Man Who Made Time Stand Still." National Geographic Magazine 172, No. 4 (October 1987): 464-483.


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