When MIT Helped Search for the Loch Ness Monster

When MIT Helped Search for the Loch Ness Monster

Bigfoot isn't the only mythical beast whose existence was sought using MIT technology

The media are filled with reports that MIT technology might be used to help in the search for BigFoot, the name given to an ape-like creature that some believe can be found in the forests of the Pacific northwest. Bigfoot research, if that's the right term, is stalled. Matt Knapp, who runs a major Bigfoot web site told Boston Magazine's Steve Annear that "[t]he facts are that in terms of progress, the Bigfoot research community has ultimately made none. We are no closer now to proving these creatures exist than we were 40 years ago.” Some might take that as suggesting the creatures don't exist. Instead, Knapp believes that "Eurlarian Video Magnification", technology invented by MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, could help the analysis purported Bigfoot videos.

While it may seem disconcerting to read "Bigfoot research" in the same sentence as "MIT", this is not the first time MIT technology has been used to search for creatures many think are mythical. In the early 1970s, MIT's legendary Harold "Doc" Edgerton participated in the search for the Loch Ness monster, the supposed aquatic beast living in a lake in Scotland. Edgerton, who invented the electronic photographic flash, used his technology to capture images that ranged from atomic explosions to drops of water as well as to assist undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. In 1972, Robert Rines, Edgerton's friend and President of Academy of Applied Science in Boston told Edgerton that his search for Loch Ness monster using sonar was "hitting paydirt." It took two years for Edgerton to join the search, but he remained an active participant for the next 15 years.

According to a 2007 article in the Technology Review, Edgerton treated Rines' search with "gentle open-mindedness." By 1986, when some of Rines' earlier images had been shown to be misshapen logs rather than some monster, Edgerton wrote to his friend, “Many factors point to no ‘Nessie.’ Regardless, there is no harm in looking, especially with sonar since there may be things to discover.” Edgerton proposed a new kind of camera designed to capture the light streaks of moving objects.

Harold "Doc" Edgerton's search for the Loch Ness Monster immortalized in Doonesbury, July 27, 1976

To date, neither the Loch Ness Monster nor Bigfoot have been captured.

Top image © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum, from: Edgerton Digital Collections: ’Doc’ Edgerton, Visionary Engineer.. This image is an underwater photograph taken by Edgerton, believed by some to show the Loch Ness monster.

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MIT is entangled in the Loch Ness Monster story in other ways too. Robert Rines L.L.B. was a lawyer who as a lecturer taught courses at MIT in "Inventions and Patents" for many years. Like Doc Edgerton, he was associated with the Department of Electrical Engineering.

I took his course in the mid-1960s and found Rines to be a fascinating mixture of courtroom lawyer and stump evangelist. He was famous for his loud voice to be carried down the long hallways at MIT and filtering into the classrooms of students studying electric circuits and early computers. He worshiped the traditional inventors and their independence, which probably caused him to link up with Doc Edgerton, whose lab was just down the hall.

Today we would call Rines a Libertarian traditionalist. He was extremely opinionated, and criticized modern "bubble-headed judges" who refused to recognize the genius of many inventors. He could get very agitated at times, in contrast to Edgerton's Nebraska calm. Thus it was not a total surprise that he might choose to get involved in a wild goose chase like the Loch Ness Monster. Still, I scratched my head and wondered if he had gone off the deep end. The tragedy was that he spent most of the last years of his life chasing this phantom, rather than concentrating on fundamental aspects of invention -- the nature of his professional and academic work.

Professor Harold "Doc" Edgerton in 1970 was an Emeritus Professor of Electrical Measurements and Institute Professor at MIT. Edgerton was famous for his strobe light photos, some of which are still displayed in the hallways of MIT. Both Men were linked by MIT, Electrical Engineering and an interest in inventions. Another man who was involved for many years at MIT was Vannivar Bush, an engineer, inventor and administrator with important contributions to computers and many electro-mechanical innovations. I wonder if Dr. Bush was instrumental in seeing that Edgerton and Rines were both supported under the umbrella of the MIT Electrical Engineering Department.

The important story here is not that MIT gets involves in the search for the Loch Ness Monster. Instead, it is a story of imagination, trust, loyalty and a willingness to accept failure as the flip side of success. It is also a story of aging and possible losses of skills and judgment as people gets older. MIT has an established tradition of moving many elderly professors into a category of Emeritus Professors, when they are still attached to the institute and have no duties, often extending up to the time of their deaths. There is some risk in any such arrangement, A few years back, Harvard had an elderly professor who decided to believe in UFOs, and it was rather awkward for the University to deal with the subsequent publicity.

S. Kaiser