Rapatronic Camera: An Atomic Blast Shot at 1/100,000,000th of a Second


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.


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.


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 flambéed and obliterated trying to obtain it? Me, I’ll just watch it explode from afar.

About the author: Mike Bukach is a photographer and Senior Writer for a Health Tech company in Columbus, Ohio. You can find more of his work on his ‘Roam About Mike‘ blog or by following him on Facebook or Twitter. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Rapatronic camera images courtesy of the MIT Museum Collections.

  • Mark Brown

    Doc Edgerton sounds like a guy who would have gotten along great with (or else argued constantly with) Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

  • slvrscoobie

    Title has an extra 0 in it, bub.

  • SeoulFood

    Either an extra zero or a misplaced comma. 1/100,000,000 or 1/1,000,000,000! Pretty fast!

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “Somebody blinked. Take 2.”

    Given the different framing of the samples here, I’m assuming that multiple cameras were used and each one had a slightly different focal length depending on the time triggered. Is this correct?

  • Jonathan Maniago

    It’s correct. Exposure time is as short as 10 nanoseconds.

    1 / (10 x (10^(-9)) = 100,000,000

  • Justin Jensen

    Also, I’ve never heard of a digital camera with a shutter speed of 1/64,000

  • DLCade

    Thanks for pointing that out! Keyboard got away from me :) It’s been fixed.

  • Tobias W.

    The author should update their perception of top shutter speeds available on manual film cameras. My Contax G2 does 1/4000s both in Aperture Priority and manual mode. Nikon’s F6 does 1/8000s. How about that.

  • Eden Wong

    Wow. Too cool.

  • Rodrigo Abello

    Great pics. Keep them coming.

  • Alan Klughammer

    Since this was recorded on film, there is no way to replace the film in a camera between the nanosecond exposures. Therefore it must be multiple cameras.

  • behindthecamera

    “Doc Edgerton’s Rapatronic Camera” wold be an excellent name for a band.

  • Mark Brown

    Not sure I would call the F6 a “manual” film camera, but I know what you mean. :-) Some truly manual cameras like the Contax S2, Nikon FM3A, etc. do 1/4000.

  • dan110024

    For once… Just once… It would be nice for comments to admire the subject of the article rather than pick the writer to bits. Just once?

    This is actually awesome. And no, I don’t feel I’m over using that word here.

  • andrewccm


  • Jhawk77

    The definition of the word “awesome.”

  • alexcookemusic

    Those “little horns” are not lightning bolts. They are the guy lines to the tower emitting visible light. The initial blast, which released 100 times the amount of visible light as the sun caused the lines to absorb so much energy that they heated to the point of vaporization and emitted visible light.

  • renambot

    No I disagree. I wish we could rate/vote on the articles. In this case the topic and the pictures are very interesting, but the writing ruined it for me.

  • Tony Anastasi

    So what ND filter did he use ? :) someone has to ask.. me, I’m guessing a mac truck would of made a very nice ND filter :P

  • Alfred Wu

    What was the capture medium for this camera?