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Rapatronic Camera: An Atomic Blast in 3 Shots

atom3

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This is a photo of an atomic bomb milliseconds after detonation, shot by Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton in 1952 through his Rapatronic (Rapid Action Electronic) Camera. 

The photo was shot at night through a 10 foot lens, situated 7 miles away from the blast, atop a 75 foot tower.  Edgerton systematically turned on and off magnetic fields acting as the camera’s shutter, as opposed to a conventional, mechanical close.

How fast was the magnetic field shutter? 1/100,000,000th of a second.

For comparison, a manual 35mm camera has a ‘top speed’ of maybe 1/3200. A really nice digital 1/64000.

atom1

This is 1/100,000,000th of a second after the first photo. See those little horns coming out the bottom? That’s lightning bolting down the tension wires of the now engulfed tower created by the force of karate-chopped atoms.

This isn’t the normal funny, Mike – why would you post something like this?

As a photographer, I’m inspired by odd things. I look at the pictures above in technological awe and giddiness. 7 Miles away?  A hundred-millionth of a second? Asymmetrical composition, but how do you go about framing pure, capricious energy? The blast looks like a glorious, shining ectoplasmic orb on a macro level. Perception is completely skewed; is this a Death Star explosion…oh, and I’ve never seen a bomb used as a light source.

As a human, It’s hard for me to fathom that something so horrible and destructive could be so mesmerizingly beautiful. I get lost in the skeletal blob surrounded by empty darkness. It’s eerie, unnerving, but looks inviting, galactic; perhaps a glimmer into Earth’s own beginning.

atom2

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Another 1/100,000,000th of a second later, and you can see the Joshua Trees with the front row seat to Doomstown. After the blast, scientists found that the tower holding the bomb was completely incinerated, gone; the surrounding desert sand melted into glass.

Doc Edgerton looked at (somewhat) common occurrences differently through his perfected technologies of the stroboscope, snapping freeze frame shots of speeding bullets exploding bananas/cards, or an apple. But of all his famous works (which you can view HERE), the ‘Atomic Series’ with the Rapatronic is my favorite.

When I see the pics, I kind of zone out. I’m inspired to look at all different angles of everyday life, even the most mundane blips. Maybe I missed something.

I’m also reminded, or perhaps just driven by more topical situations, the pursuit/warning of absolute power – in whatever form – may look beautiful, but is it worth it? Do you want to have your molecular make-up flambeed and obliterated trying to obtain it? Me, I’ll just watch it explode from afar. – Mike

119 Comments Post a comment
  1. tim #

    Are you juicing “mushrooms” again?

    February 15, 2013
    • Bwahaha! no no no mushrooms. That made my morning, thanks, Tim.

      February 15, 2013
      • can we juice mushrooms? i think it is worth a try.

        February 15, 2013
      • Sure, you can market magic mushroom smoothies.

        February 15, 2013
  2. Nathaniel Hahn #

    Sweet pics…and good facts!

    February 15, 2013
  3. E. #

    I can’t believe those are actual pictures – they look like computer generated scenes from an alien planet. You’re right – it’s scary how beautiful and fascinating they are. Thanks for sharing; gives me a whole new perspective to my day.

    February 15, 2013
    • Really, really odd pics. Especially how grainy the first one is, which is a testament to high bright the initial explosion was.
      Awesome, no problem. Glad you liked it, E.

      February 15, 2013
  4. free penny press #

    Isn’t this world and what some can do just mind-freaking-boggling?
    this is great!

    February 15, 2013
    • It makes me feel insignificant….and I’m okay with that.

      February 15, 2013
  5. jkmhoffman #

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

    February 15, 2013
    • Awesome, thanks for the reblog, kjmhoffman!

      February 15, 2013
  6. They are surreal and I hope that they are the last ever taken!

    February 15, 2013
    • Exactly! Archive ‘em, be done with them.

      February 15, 2013
      • FRESHLY PRESSED!!! Woohoo! You and Le Clown on the same day!
        Congratulations!

        February 23, 2013
      • Weeeee! That clown guy stealing my thunder….
        Thanks, Susie.

        February 23, 2013
  7. I’ve seen these photos before and I find them utterly fascinating, and creepy as hell.

    February 16, 2013
    • Glad I’m not the only one. Not lying when I say it’s the most I’ve been to my own blog since the inception – just to stare at these pics. Now sure how I missed them in all these years involved with photography.

      February 16, 2013
  8. This may be the most fascinating post I’ve ever viewed on WordPress!
    Great job!

    February 16, 2013
    • Thanks, Hook. Weird, wild stuff – glad you liked it.

      February 16, 2013
  9. Awesome, thanks for sharing, Mike. You’re right, the dilemma between the beautiful vs. hideously destructive is an interesting tension to contemplate. I guess a lot of evil is glamorous on the outside–that’s what makes it so seductive. If you’re interested in photographic pushing-of-the-envelope, you may also like this. I loved it…. http://vimeo.com/39578584

    February 17, 2013
    • Laura – that video is absolutely stunning. Stunning.
      I actually have a print in my house from Sister Corita-Kent I’ve been looking to sell. If I do, I’m buying one of his prints. Thank YOU so much for sharing.

      February 17, 2013
  10. I’m still always amazed by those slow speed films of a drop of milk falling into a puddle. I’m easily amused I guess.

    February 17, 2013
    • Those are also amazing. I stared at his bullet through the apple shot today for like 15 minutes, so I understand completely.

      February 17, 2013
  11. I agree with the previous commenter who said these photos look like they’re computer generated. Or they could be from a 1950s sci-fi movie. Fascinating photos!

    February 18, 2013
    • They’re like scenes from Forbidden Planet, but Leslie Nielson isn’t in it.
      Thanks, Silver.

      February 19, 2013
  12. One word: WOW!

    February 21, 2013
  13. They are amazing shots! I’ve never seen them before. How dangerously beautiful they can be.

    February 21, 2013
    • They really are – still trying to fathom the logistics behind how they were created. Dangerously beautiful is exactly right. Thanks, bmailman!

      February 21, 2013
  14. I have the same fascination with storms. They are naturally beautiful and the raw power is inspiring…but I don’t need a hands on experience. I’ll just watch the videos and view the photos.

    February 21, 2013
    • sha’tashari,

      Oh yeah, same here. Love watching storms – though, i wish I were more hands off. Been caught in a hurricane, and a tornado. Not so fun to watch…

      February 21, 2013
  15. Reblogged this on ARZcreation.com.

    February 21, 2013
  16. Such raw power is both amazing and terrifying. Nice post!

    February 21, 2013
  17. Reblogged this on Stuff Found and commented:
    Just cool stuff you never knew.

    February 21, 2013
    • Totally agree. Thanks for the repost, Eyagee!

      February 21, 2013
  18. Amazing. Especially the last one. You might be interested in this video of the first blast: http://archive.org/details/1946-07-08_First_Pictures_Atomic_Blast

    not as amazing as these photos but still really amazing to see.

    February 21, 2013
    • Eunoic,

      That was both horrific and amazing. Thanks so much for sharing. Very cool

      February 21, 2013
  19. I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about. It wont cost you anything and your post will be on a google ranked 3 site. Many Thanks. David

    February 21, 2013
    • Hey David, Thanks. I’d be interested in doing something like this. Let me know when.

      February 21, 2013
  20. That really is an incredible camera! The subject is amazing too. It’s sometimes hard to believe how fast things happen like how fast this bomb is exploding.

    February 21, 2013
    • Crazy, isn’t it?
      Can’t image the power coming off that explosion.

      February 21, 2013
  21. free penny press #

    had to march back over (yes in my Toms) and high-five you for the FP!! ;-)

    February 21, 2013
    • Sweeeeet! Way up high! Thanks, Lynne.

      February 21, 2013
  22. It’s amazing how we (humans) could produce something so amazing so long ago & now that our technology has advanced we rely on media such as Instagram to make our images look ‘prettier’. Good read!! Amazing shots.

    February 21, 2013
    • Exactly, Sara. I still occasionally shoot with medium format cameras, because of what you just said.
      Thanks for reading!

      February 21, 2013
  23. Nice post. Congrats on being FP’d.

    You might enjoy watching the documentary, Atomic cafe, if you haven’t already seen it. It is a great look back at the hoopla and PR during the ’50s over the A-bomb.

    February 21, 2013
    • Thanks, Allan.

      Sounds cool. Will definitely check it out – just added it on Netflix.:)

      February 22, 2013
  24. WOW! yeah, I would stay waaaaaaaaaaaaay back too lol! considering how much heat is required to melt sand? dang :)

    February 21, 2013
    • Yeah, watch your eyebrows!

      February 22, 2013
      • oh geez I KNEW I was missing something!

        February 22, 2013
      • It’ll be okay, you can barely notice.

        February 22, 2013
  25. Sets scanning my cats’ rumps to an awesome new low.

    Thank you!

    THIS IS AWESOME

    February 21, 2013
  26. That is amazing!

    February 21, 2013
  27. Wow. Interesting photos! I’ve always been interested in nuclear physics. :D

    February 22, 2013
    • Thanks, Usman – wish they were mine.

      February 22, 2013
  28. Reblogged this on cyclingacrosseuropeforcharity and commented:
    A very interesting post!

    February 22, 2013
    • Thanks for the reblog, norismatteo!

      February 22, 2013
  29. Reblogged this on The Wide Sargasso Gyre.

    February 22, 2013
    • Thanks, guychandler. much appreciated.

      February 22, 2013
  30. Fish Out of Water #

    Um, freaking cool!! Love this! Congrats on gettin’ pressed.

    February 22, 2013
    • Thanks very much. It’s not as cool as being ‘freshly slapped’ but I guess I’ll take it.

      February 22, 2013
  31. Great commentary on some amazing photos Mike.
    Great to see you on the front page again; well deserved!
    Red

    February 22, 2013
    • Thank you, Sir. That Clown guy was also on the front page….

      February 22, 2013
      • I saw that. You two are officially team dominator.

        February 22, 2013
      • We also both walked out in public with the same outfit. Embarrassing.

        February 23, 2013
  32. Roshni #

    Brilliant post! Loved your thoughts – especially the line about how “something so horrible and destructive can be so mesmerizingly beautiful”. Totally agree. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    February 22, 2013
    • Thanks, Roshni, I really appreciate it.
      And thanks for reading

      February 22, 2013
  33. Nice picts! thx for sharing, its very beautiful =)

    February 22, 2013
  34. The photos on the link are awesome. They make me want to experiement with photography.

    February 22, 2013
    • Super cool stuff. Do it, just as long as it isn’t pictures of nuclear fission….

      February 22, 2013
  35. Raising Awareness of MAD

    February 22, 2013
    • Raising Awareness of SPAM.

      February 23, 2013
      • It’s not too bad with mustard on wheat, once you get past the jelly!

        February 23, 2013
      • I see what you did there, and I like it.

        February 23, 2013
  36. The pics are mesmerizing I have studied the aftermath of that bomb and I hadn’t seen these pics together or learned about the camera taking them thanks for posting this!

    February 22, 2013
    • What did you learn about the aftermath? I haven’t done any research outside the tech behind the camera work.
      My pleasure, thanks for reading, Kristy.

      February 23, 2013
      • I meant the effect of the drop on Japan the medical and environmental impact I hadn’t seen the any tests pics their just a tad creepy yet very engaging thanks again for posting them.

        February 23, 2013
      • Ah, gotcha.
        Thanks for commenting, Kristy.

        February 23, 2013
      • It is horrific the bomb was dropped during their morning rush hour rising the death toll massively, to add to that a scout airplane went over first that was not carrying the bomb they hit the air raid sirens and people hid, but after a few minutes they thought they were ok so they went back to their morning routine! One woman’s story just breaks me she was eating breakfast with her two small kids and hubby when the bomb hit obliterating their home one of her little ones was stuck under a flaming pile from their home she tried to free her but couldn’t she had to sit their and listen to her daughter beg her to get her out it took several minutes until she died that poor woman’s family were all killed that day. The fall out rain was awful it was black and poisonous but the heat drove them to drink it that only made them all feel worse. There are many story’s like this I studied everything I could find I felt like they deserved to be remembered like I was obligated to listen to them I’m glad I did, it changed me for the better at least I hope it did!! Those bombs are more disastrous than anything else I have ever studied I dig history and consume things like war, famine, or natural calamities I suppose I’m just odd like that.

        February 24, 2013
      • Wow. Powerful, haunting stuff, Kristy. Thank you for sharing.
        I will be in Hiroshima in a month, plan on doing some major reflecting while there.

        February 24, 2013
  37. Thank you for this post. It gives me a lot of ideas for potential pics, though admittedly on a different theme! In the time of digital photography, this gives some perspective as to what can be done without a computer…

    February 23, 2013
    • Great, Des. Thanks for reading, and than you for not dabbling with molecular splitting in your art. :)
      That’s my favorite part of the piece, and the reason I still have some old cameras laying around – you don’t need to do post work if you do it right.

      February 23, 2013
  38. I recently saw an interview with two of the engineers who helped create the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. Their photos of the test, like these you’ve shared here, were overwhelming in both powerful imagery and scope of destructive capability. It was interesting that they said many of the people working on that project had no idea what they were building. Nice post.

    February 23, 2013
    • Hey Honie! How have you been?
      Wow. Could you imagine not knowing you’re working on the most powerful, destructive force on the planet (outside of nature)?
      Crazy. Do you have links to the pics by chance? I’d be interested to see.

      February 23, 2013
      • Hey Man! I have been super busy. Giving talks, taking classes, writing (procrastinating actually) and doing general chick type stuff. Yeah, as a matter of fact I can imagine it. (I worked for a Wall Street firm, ya know.)
        The Trinity Test photos I saw were taken by Jack Aeby, but here is one link:
        http://www.atomicarchive.com/Photos/Trinity/index.shtml
        I’m sure if you Google Trinity Test or Manhattan Project there are others.

        February 23, 2013
      • Excellent. Good to hear you’ve been quite busy. What kind of talks do you do, if you don’t mind me asking.?

        Haha! A little secret – I worked for Lehman Brothers at one point in my career, so I understand completely.

        This is amazing. Now, I shall completely procrastinate over this….

        February 23, 2013
      • Ah, good ole Dick Fuld and the house that greed built, I know it well!

        I deliver talks about gardening, composting, healthy food options for families and volunteerism. I posted the outline for a recent talk I gave for a local civic club about organic gardening. Stop by for a visit sometime while you’re out roaming around, would ya ~~

        February 24, 2013
      • Indeed, I blame my departure on their downfall. :)

        That’s awesome, Honie. Very much interested in the healthy food options. Will definitely stop by soon.

        February 25, 2013
  39. Reblogged this on New American Gospel! and commented:
    – J.W.

    February 23, 2013
  40. Those are strangely beautiful images. They look very much like drawings. Fascinating post.

    February 24, 2013
    • Agree completely. Thank you, drawandshoot!

      February 24, 2013
  41. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

    February 24, 2013
  42. I love this! Your writing is brilliant.

    feel free to take a look at my blog!

    http://theseanmaloneyshow.wordpress.com

    February 25, 2013
    • Thank you Sean Maloney!

      Will check it out

      February 25, 2013
  43. The pictures are raw and you’re right, sorta mesmerizing. I remember I found this poster when I was young that showed an H bomb exploding in the South Pacific. The dwarfed outer rings of the atoll with their puny trees had an effect on me. The joshua trees have that same sort of feel. Interesting post for sure.

    February 25, 2013
    • I know the image you’re talking about – definitely burnt into the ol’ memory bank. Thanks for reading, mflaherty!

      February 25, 2013
  44. Stunning use of technology in a camera. Stunning photos – this is Armageddon, advancing towards us in one-millionth second steps. All of it, to me, further underscoring the truth behind Einstein’s aphorism – ‘atomic weapons have changed everything…except the way we think.’

    February 25, 2013
    • Thanks so much for the interesting, profound commentary, Matthew. Very much appreciated.

      February 25, 2013
  45. Atomic !

    February 25, 2013
  46. Awesome shots…
    Thanks for sharing!
    Jim

    February 26, 2013
  47. Amazing to say the least, thanks for sharing :)

    March 3, 2013
  48. Nice. Interesting photos. :)

    March 6, 2013
  49. You were featured in Vsauce’s “Cruel Bombs” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHZAaGidUbg
    If you don’t know about that youtube channel it’s hands down the best science related youtube channel ever. I can’t even explain it.

    November 5, 2013
    • Amazing! I saw the spike in traffic this week. Very cool video. Thanks, Rorschach!

      November 6, 2013
  50. Reblogged this on Isaac J. Dean.

    March 4, 2014

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  1. Cruel Bombs | Social Sounder
  2. Rapatronic Camera: An Atomic Blast Shot at 1/100,000,0000th of a Second
  3. Cruel Bombs | God Of World

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