Unsung Hero

September/October 2006

Maxwell Allen

The careful researcher consults earthquake catalogs at the beginning of any project to know the seismic history of the region of study. Today, catalogs are online. In general they are listings of earthquake parameters that can be used to retrieve seismograms of earthquakes of interest to the researcher.

For California and West Coast earthquakes, early researchers used descriptive catalogs compiled by Lick Observatory Director Edward S. Holden for the time period 1769–1896 and U. S. Weather Bureau meteorologist Alexander G. McAdie, who updated Holden’s catalog in 1907 to include earthquakes up to and including the 1906 sequence that affected San Francisco and northern California. Both these catalogs were published as special papers by the Smithsonian Institution, but they were out of print by the 1920s.

In 1939, Sidney D. Townley and Maxwell Allen published an update to these two descriptive catalogs in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America by adding earthquakes through 1928, sorted into regions of the West Coast and a few of the inland states.

The Townley-Allen catalog had an interesting beginning. Neither Townley nor Allen was a seismologist. Townley was an astronomer at Stanford University. His field of expertise was binary stars, and he did his observational work at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. A considerable number of the early Seismological Society of America members were astronomers. It made sense, as they were observers of data, able to understand variations they saw and able to draw conclusions to fit the data. The astronomers also had good timing. The observatory chronometers were good to one second per day in those days. Because of this, many of the early seismological observations were co-located in astronomical observatories.

Maxwell Allen was an amateur who gained great respect from professionals for his diligent work. In March 1924, Allen wrote a letter from his home in Santa Rosa, California, to Professor S. D. Townley at Leland Stanford Jr. University. He explained that he was a member of the Seismological Society of America and particularly interested in the earthquakes of the Pacific Coast. He also expressed concern about the Society’s growth in membership and its ability to continue to publish its Bulletin. The Society struggled in its formative years to obtain grants from federal agencies, private foundations, and similar organizations to continue its publication.

In his letter Allen wrote:

The writer is not well-to-do being only a salaried optometrist, but to secure the regular publication of the bulletin he will do this. Pay ten dollars quarterly in addition to the annual dues. Thirteen dollars, covering the dues for this year, and ten dollars for the quarter beginning March 1 is sent herewith. Also, to make his promise more than a pledge, he is enclosing promissory notes for ten dollars each maturing serially at the expiration of successive quarterly periods for two years.

Townley didn’t know exactly what to do with this money. At the next meeting of the board of directors, he read Allen’s letter, which also mentioned Allen’s interest in the reports of earthquakes that he found in northern California newspapers. The board decided to establish a fund to prepare a descriptive catalog of earthquakes to supplement the Holden and McAdie catalogs.

According to the annual financial reports of the Society, the Allen fund grew only slightly over the years, with probably only Allen himself contributing to it. At its maximum, the fund contained $144.26. In 1930, two disbursements were made for secretarial assistance in preparation of the catalog. The account was closed in 1937 and the fund balance of $7.39 was transferred to the Society’s general fund. That year, the Society allocated $104.37 for expenses associated with the preparation of the catalog for the printer. Townley was the secretary-treasurer of the Society and also the second editor of the Bulletin. He did little on the catalog until 1930, when he relinquished his position as secretary-treasurer.

Before he published the catalog with Townley, Allen published three articles in the Bulletin. In 1925, “Some Remarks Concerning Pacific Coast Earthquakes” appeared in volume 15, number 2. Knowing that it was not possible for him to scan every page of every newspaper published in the northern counties of California, Allen listed the dates of earthquake occurrences, then scanned local newspapers for intensity observations in the two weeks of editions following each date. Knowing that this scheme would not unearth unknown shocks but believing that most of the larger shocks were reported, Allen was able to obtain information about the size of the reported earthquakes and assist in assigning a “true position” in the record. He took responsibility for scanning newspaper reports for Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa counties, hoping other workers would take on one or two other counties. He also enlisted postmasters to report felt observations using postcards designed by Harry O. Wood of the Carnegie Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena. He said that searching the newspapers was “an easy spare-time occupation.” Allen’s 1925 paper gives a succinct description of how he collected information about the felt and destructive observations of an earthquake before he assigned a Rossi-Forel intensity value.

Allen’s other two papers appeared in 1929 (in BSSA volume 19, number 1) and in 1936 (in BSSA volume 26, number 2). Both considered tidal factors in the causation of earthquakes. In correspondence with Townley, Allen asked that the drafts be sent to Wood and Harry Fielding Reid for comments. Their correspondence, however, is not in the secretary’s archive.

In a note attached to the preface of the catalog, published in 1939 in volume 29, number 1, Townley reports that Allen died an “untimely death” in January 1938, “depriving the senior author of his valuable advice and counsel in the review of the final copy.”

An interesting aside is found in the membership cards at the Society’s headquarters. The year Maxwell Allen died, his wife, Rose Allen, joined the Society, and she remained a member for almost 20 more years. It is only conjecture on the part of this author that Allen’s first paper instructing catalogers on searching newspapers may have been written for his wife, who diligently scanned and searched northern California newspapers for earthquake reports. Rose Allen’s interest, indeed, may not have flagged with her husband’s death.

Wilbur (Bill) Rinehart
sungo1983 [at] mac.com





Posted: 30 June 2006