Good vibrations: Celebrating a seismologist celebrity
If there is ever a day to double-test foundations and keep an ear out for rumblings deep within the Earth, it’s April 26 — Richter Scale Day — an acknowledgement and celebration of the man who taught the world how to measure earthquakes: Charles F. Richter.
Born in 1900 in Overpeck, Ohio, the American earthquake seismologist came up with the Richter Scale in 1935 while at the California Institute of Technology. Since then, the world has been able to compare various earthquakes and investigate their relative power for destruction.
Inspired by Kiyoo Wadati’s 1928 paper on shallow and deep earthquakes, Richter worked at the new Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena under the direction of Beno Gutenberg to measure the relative sizes of earthquake sources. The Seismology Lab at the California Institute of Technology wanted to begin publishing regular reports on earthquakes in southern California and had a pressing need for a system of measuring the strength of earthquakes for these reports. Together, Richter and Gutenberg devised the Richter Scale to fill this need, based on quantitatively measuring the displacement of the earth by seismic waves, as Wadati had suggested.
The pair designed a seismograph that measured this displacement and developed a logarithmic scale to measure intensity. The name “magnitude” for this measurement came from Richter’s childhood interest in astronomy — astronomers measure the intensity of stars in magnitudes.
Richter became a full professor at the California Institute of Technology in 1952. After spending two years in Japan as a Fulbright scholar, he became involved in earthquake engineering by weighing in on the development of building codes for earthquake prone areas. Richter had strong opinions about skyscrapers and was famously quoted as saying, “Don’t build them in California.”
The city government of Los Angeles removed many ornaments and cornices from municipal buildings in the 1960s as a result of Richter’s awareness campaigns. After the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, the city cited Richter’s warnings as important in preventing many deaths.
Today’s seismologists no longer use Richter’s formulation, and since Richter’s death in 1985, construction materials have become stronger and engineering more precise. However, the vast power and mysteries of earthquakes still continue to instill a deep humility in designers, architects and code officials who advocate for retrofitting older buildings, and designing strong seismic-resistant structures.