The Nessie Quest
Edgerton joined out of friendship and curiosity.
The Loch Ness Monster, like Bigfoot and alien abduction, is now considered a myth unworthy of scientific investigation. But before that myth was debunked, MIT’s Harold “Doc” Edgerton, SM ‘27, ScD ‘31, gamely joined the Nessie quest. In the last two decades of his life, the Institute Professor found time to lend his legendary expertise in strobe photography and sonar to the search for the creature said to lurk in the Scottish loch.
It started in 1972 with a telegram from Edgerton’s friend Robert Rines ‘42, the president of the Academy of Applied Science in Boston. Rines had gone to Scotland in search of Nessie and was staying at the Drumnadrochit Hotel, whose slogan was “Where the monster plays in the bay, so they say.” Rines thought he had a chance of documenting the monster using sonar and underwater photography. “Hitting pay dirt on fixed mode sonar and light attracting near underwater cameras,” he telegraphed Edgerton. “Can you possibly pass through Drumnadrochit enroute to Greece to help?”
Edgerton initially declined, but that summer, Rines took an intriguing set of photographs at Loch Ness. Enhanced by computer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to emphasize edges and contrast, the photographs seemed to show the flipper of a large aquatic animal.
This 1975 Loch Ness photograph by Charles W. Wyckoff ‘41 was enhanced by computer at the Jet Propulsion Lab to better define object outlines.
Photo credit: JPL-enhanced photo courtesy of Robert Rines ‘42
Within two years, Edgerton signed on to help develop and provide equipment that could aid the search for creatures hidden in the depths of Loch Ness’s murky, yellow-brown waters. “How could anyone … not rise to the technical problems that are before the researcher in this field?” Edgerton wrote Rines. “I personally am tremendously interested in the apparent attraction of the animals in the Loch by our cameras and lights.”
With Edgerton’s equipment, Rines took additional, tantalizing pictures that led to a moment in the limelight and articles in Technology Review and National Geographic. But follow-up trips in the late 1970s failed to confirm the monster’s existence.
Undaunted, Edgerton tinkered with his equipment to improve its performance in the low-visibility conditions of the loch. With Ian Morrison, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, he investigated a World War II Wellington bomber found during the Nessie search, and he pushed Morrison to publish articles on the loch’s history.
By the mid-1980s, the intellectual tide was turning against the Nessie quest. Discover and the Skeptical Inquirer published scathing critiques of the flipper photographs and accompanying sonar data. Before long, the Loch Ness Monster became the academic equivalent of box office poison. Morrison had trouble publishing legitimate historical research on stone circles found at the bottom of the loch, and he wrote to Edgerton of a postgraduate doing geological work in the area: “Since the candidate wishes to retain academic respectability there is of course not the slightest mention of strange beasties.”
In that letter, Morrison revealed his true feelings about the monster. “You may recall that whilst I will admit to getting a crick in my neck while diving (through a gut-level compulsion to keep checking that nothing was indeed sneaking up behind me, through those gloomy doom-laden depths …), the cerebral scientist in me protests that it is very difficult to see how you could get a big beast into the Loch.”
Edgerton treated Rines’s Loch Ness obsession with gentle open-mindedness. Rines was still planning trips to search for the monster even after a high-profile 1987 investigation showed that some of his most exciting images were probably pictures of a strangely shaped log. Making no mention of that, Edgerton wrote to him that fall to ask why no results had been published from Rines’s last trip and sent sketches of a new “streak camera” for detecting moving objects. Kindness to a friend and the chance to conquer equipment challenges held more value to him than the chance of finding a monster.
“Many factors point to no ‘Nessie,’” Edgerton wrote Morrison in 1986. “Regardless, there is no harm in looking, especially with sonar since there may be things to discover.”