This day 176 years ago – 9 February 1846 – Irish geophysicist Robert Mallet presented his paper On the Dynamics of Earthquakes, “the first attempt to bring the phenomena of the earthquake within the range of exact science.”
The scientific community often refers to Robert Mallet as the ‘father of seismology’. Born in Dublin, in 1810 he attended Trinity College before going on to work for his father’s iron foundry as an engineer. This foundry was one of the most important in Ireland and was contracted to carry out some of the biggest civil engineering jobs of the day, such as the isolated Fastnet Lighthouse off of the coast of west Cork, also known as ‘Ireland’s teardrop’, since it was the last Irish land many emigrants saw when sailing from Queenstown to America.
He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1832 when he was just 22-years-old and was already carrying out his own seismological research. It was in 1846 that he presented a paper entitled ‘On the Dynamics of Earthquakes’ that is regarded as one of the most important early scientific contributions on the subject of earthquakes. As well as making several new observations in the paper, he is also credited with coining the term ‘seismology’, as well as using the term ‘epicentre’ for the first time.
He reported for the Royal Society on the devastating Basilicata earthquake of 1857 in which 11,000 people died and produced a major scientific paper on the event, using photographs of what happened in Italy to demonstrate his own theories of seismology. His pictures are believed to be the very first photographs of the aftermath of an earthquake. Mallet moved to London in 1861 where he worked as a consulting engineer and was awarded a number of industry prizes, including the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy and the Geological Society of London’s highest award, for his research into earthquakes.