John Milne and the History of Seismology

John Milne

On December 30, 1850, British geologist and mining engineer John Milne was born. He is best known for his invention of the horizontal pendulum seismograph (1894). Furthermore, he was one of the European scientists that helped organize the seismic survey of Japan in the last half of the 1800’s.

John Milne grew up in Lancashire and received his undergraduate education at the Department of Applied Sciences, King College London. He was asked to join an expedition to assess the geology and the mineral resources of Newfoundland in the employment of Cyrus Field, an American financier and entrepreneur. Next to this expedition, Milne was mainly active as field geologist on a three month expedition which was sent out by the Royal Geographical Society to the Middle East. The intention of the expedition was to fix the exact location of Mount Sinai. Milne collected numerous rock specimens of which many were examined by the British Museum. These expeditions significantly increased Milne’s reputation and helped him to become Professor of Geology and Mining at the Imperial College of Engineering (I.C.E.)in Tokyo.

Rather than traveling to Tokyo on a Steam Ship, Milne preferred to travel overland across Europe, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. Back then, only little was known about the gold and copper mining regions in Russia and Siberia, wherefore Milne was highly interested in visiting them. Also, it is assumed that Milne often suffered sea-sickness. At the I.C.E., Milne was supported by the government to go on several field trips across the country. He visited many of Japan’s volcanoes and increased his enthusiasm regarding the country’s archeology and anthropology, which was stimulated even more by his colleague Professor Morse. Milne managed to report several mineral resources, especially the deposits of coal on Hokkaido were important.

It is assumed that Milne’s interest in seismology evolved around 1880 while elevating the subject from a geological pasttime into a modern instrument-based science. He was active at the center of Anglo-Japanese science of seismology for about 15 years. He founded the Seismological Society of Japan, which was the first known institution of this kind globally. [1] The founding of the institution followed a heavy earthquake in Yokahama and it funded the invention of seismographs in order to detect and measure the stength of earhtquakes. John Milne is mainly credited with the invention of the horizontal pendulum seismograph and Milne’s instruments probably allowed him to detect different types of earthquakes as well as estimate the waves’ velocities. About two decades later, Milne is believed to have been responsible for setting up similar seismographs around the world, in order to collect data which could be evaluated at a central observatory. [3]

John Milne was also a collector of seismological literature and established his library at the Isle of Wight after returning Britain. His large collection is on this day displayed at the Science Museum in London and includes many works by Milne, including ‘The Great Earthquake in Japan‘. [2]

At yovisto, you may be interested in the lecture ‘A tectonic time bomb in our backyard: Earthquake potential of the Hayward fault‘ Roland Burgman at Berkeley.

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