An early earthquake expert

WAY BACK WHEN

Hopkins prof tracked from his lab as San Francisco shook

Back story

April 15, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Spangler, who was known as the Pennsylvania Prophet, released his list of prophecies for the coming year, which The Sun published Jan. 28, 1906.

Spangler's predications included an earthquake in the Philippines, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius and a "destructive earthquake" in San Francisco, and within four months, two of them would become deadly and destructive realities.

Mount Vesuvius began a thunderous weeklong eruption in early April that killed several hundred and sent lava, the greatest amount ever recorded from the volcano, in a torrent toward the Gulf of Naples, while wiping out towns, wrecking railroads and roads, and anything else that lay in its path.

In Naples, eruption-spawned earthquakes caused buildings to sway, while showering the city and its residents with 4 inches of choking gray volcanic ash.

Across the Atlantic, Harry Fielding Reid, a seismologist, glaciologist and professor of applied mechanics at the Johns Hopkins University, was in his laboratory in the late morning of April 18 when he began noticing intense seismic activity being recorded on the seismograph.

It was 11:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

What Reid was looking at were the first transcontinental tremors from the Great San Francisco Earthquake as they were being recorded on the Hopkins' seismograph.

In 1906, seismographs were still an expensive rarity, with only four in the nation, and in addition to the instrument at Hopkins, they were located at the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, Harvard University and the Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton near San Jose, Calif.

San Francisco residents were roused from their slumber at 5:12 a.m. Pacific time by the first tremor that rumbled along the San Andreas Fault from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland to Nevada. Within a minute, the 7.8- to 7.9-magnitude quake, according to present-day earthquake scales, reduced San Francisco to rubble.

While residents fought for their lives as buildings collapsed around them, ruptured gas lines fed fires that eventually swept through and destroyed 500 city blocks. Firefighters were further hampered in their efforts to fight the fire because of truncated water mains and debris-filled streets.

More than 3,000 perished in the disaster that left 300,000 homeless and caused damage in excess of $500 million in 1906 dollars.

"According to the record made by the seismograph, the shock was severest from about 15 minutes after the tremor was first observed until probably 9:30 o'clock. During that period the needle several times passed over the side of the film from the intensity of the vibrations," reported The Sun.

"The film is but a fraction of an inch wide and a vibration causing the needle to describe lines more than half an inch in each direction, Professor Reid explained, was very unusual and had never occurred on that instrument but once before. That was at the time of the earthquake in Columbia, South America, January 31st last," the newspaper reported.

In Washington, Willis L. Moore, was as amazed as his colleague in Baltimore, as he looked at his Bosch-Omori seismograph and its jiggling needle as it swayed to and fro.

"The record shows a disturbance of considerable magnitude at Washington, although not severe enough to be felt by individuals," said Moore in a statement to the press.

"The stronger wave motion began at 8:25 a.m. -- that is, about five minutes after the first imperceptible tremors. The recording pen was carried completely off the record sheet by the violence of the motion from 8:22 to 8:35 a.m. After the latter time the motion gradually diminished over a longer period of time, but did not entirely cease until about 12:35 p.m.," reported The Sun.

Reid quickly dismissed the notion that the San Francisco earthquake and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius were in any way connected, and further reassured Marylanders that such a calamity was highly unlikely here because Baltimore sits on bedrock that is covered by a layer of several hundred feet of gravel and sand, which "would have a great tendency to reduce the force of a shock here," he said.

Reid, a native Baltimorean, was born in 1859, the son of a wealthy tobacco and sugar merchant. He earned a civil engineering degree in 1876 from the Pennsylvania Military Academy and a bachelor's degree in 1880 from Hopkins. After earning a doctorate in philosophy from Hopkins, he studied in England and Germany for several years.

Reid was a professor of mathematics and physics at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland from 1886 to 1889.

Daniel Coit Gilman, Hopkins' first president and a friend of Reid's, brought him back to the university in 1894 as associate professor of physical geology, a post he held until 1911, when he was named professor of dynamic geology and geography.

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