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History of the Seismological Society of America

By Perry Byerly
(excerpted from Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America,
Vol. 54, No. 6, pp. 1723-1741; December 1964)

The Organization of the Society

Alexander McAdie of the San Francisco office of the United States Weather Bureau sent out a circular letter on August 22, 1906. In this he called a meeting to consider organizing a seismological society. He wrote: "The State Earthquake Investigation Commission (appointed to study the California Earthquake of April 18, 1906) is on record as favoring the formation of a seismological society. ... The prime object of such an organization, as in Japan, should be to mold public opinion, to advise wisely, to set forth the truth, and to provide funds for research and investigation. It is expected that such a society will be able, with the funds intrusted to its care, to publish from time to time the best information obtainable concerning earthquakes, and in every way work for the benefit and welfare of not only our own community but all mankind, so far as the effects of earth movements are concerned."

The meeting was held at the California Promotion Committee Assembly Hall in San Francisco on August 30, 1906 at 2 p.m. Thirteen individuals attended. They were Charles Burckhalter; A. L. Chauvet; George Davidson; H. W. Furlong; Leopold Jordan; A. O. Leuschner; George D. Louderback; Alexander G. McAdie; J. G. McMillan; Dayton C. Miller; Thomas Nunan; J. S. Ricard, S.J.; T. J. J. See. Alexander McAdie opened the meeting. George Davidson was elected temporary chairman, and George Louderback, temporary secretary. Twenty-nine letters of encouragement were written by persons unable to attend. In the discussion it was mentioned by several that the general public attitude of secrecy and efforts to suppress earthquake information must be combated.

The temporary chairman appointed a committee of nine to arrange for organization of the society. The members were: Charles Burckhalter; C. Derleth; H. W. Furlong; Joseph N. LeConte; A. O. Leuschner; George D. Louderback; Alexander G. McAdie; J. S. Ricard, S.J.; T. J. J. See.

This committee met on September 27, 1906. In that meeting a subcommittee of three was appointed to draw up the articles of incorporation, the Constitution, and By Laws. The membership of the subcommittee was Joseph N. LeConte, George D. Louderback and Alexander G. McAdie.

After consideration and revision of the recommendations of the subcommittee, the organization committee presented its report to the first regular meeting of the Society on November 20, 1906. After an effort to drop the words "of America" from the name of the Society was defeated, the new Constitution and By Laws were adopted. The first Board of Directors was then elected: Charles Burckhalter; W. W. Campbell; George Davidson; C. Derleth; G. K. Gilbert; Andrew C. Lawson; Joseph N. LeConte; A. O. Leuschner; George D. Louderback; Alexander G. McAdie; J. S. Ricard, S.J.; T. J. J. See.

The letterhead on which the minutes of this meeting appears has beneath the name of the Society the following in quotes: "For the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge concerning earthquakes and allied phenomena, and to enlist the support of the people and the government in the attainment of these ends."

The Early Days before the Bulletin

The first meeting of the Board of Directors was on December 1, 1906. There the first regular officers of the Society were elected: President George Davidson, First Vice President Andrew C. Lawson, Second Vice President T. J. J. See, Third Vice President Alexander G. McAdie, Secretary George D. Louderback, and Treasurer Joseph N. LeConte. The first action after election of officers was to appoint a committee "to investigate the periods of chimneys and other engineering problems." The Board also appointed a "scientific committee."

At a meeting of the Board on September 20, 1907 it was reported that the Society had "about 145 members." The Scientific Committee reported a suggestion by the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution that an "Institute of Seismology" be set up in California under the auspices of the Institution. There was discussion of getting lists of names of people willing to report felt earthquakes and the need for a new intensity scale, "modernized" and "Americanized."

At a meeting of the Board on February 20, 1908 it was agreed to send to the membership the following statement: "The Society is desirous of issuing a quarterly publication and is ready to do so as soon as it can get a guarantee of $300 a year, and the Society appeals to its members to guarantee $5 or $10 a year for five years, or to get others interested in seismological investigations to do so." It is interesting to read in the minutes of this meeting that the list of new members elected includes Sidney D. Townley and Harry O. Wood.

The Society held a "general and informal meeting" in San Francisco on January 9, 1908. Certain items discussed are of interest. Again the comments came up that newspapers try to suppress information on damage done by earthquakes as being "unfavorable in a commercial way." The Report of the California Earthquake Commission was discussed and the special importance of a paper by F. J. Rogers in the Report "on the behavior of loose soil under the action of earthquake vibrations." John C. Branner "spoke at some length on faults, considered as the places of origin of shocks ...;." The point was made that the Society "should strive in a dispassionate way to inform the public that the recurrence of earthquakes is inevitable but that with the observation of proper precautions (concerning which information should also be disseminated) except in very rare instances they need not greatly be feared."

In the minutes of the meeting of the Board of Directors on December 15, 1910 appears: "The matter of starting a publication of the Society was discussed at some length and it was the opinion of all present that this should be done. The President (Banner), Secretary Pro Tem (Townley), and Professor Lawson were appointed a committee on publication."

In the minutes of the meeting of the Board of Directors for March 31, 1911 appears: "It was decided ...; that 1,000 copies of the Bulletin be printed each issue." The committee mentioned in the previous paragraph must have acted quickly!

The Bulletin

At its beginning the Bulletin was issued in March, June, September, and December. The Bulletin was in the charge of a Publications Committee consisting at the beginning of John C. Branner, Andrew C. Lawson, and Sidney D. Townley. It appears to have been Townley who did the editorial work. The publication was by the Stanford University Press.

In the September 1911 issue there first appeared the section called "Seismological Notes", giving short extracts from newspapers and other sources of felt earthquakes. This department through the years has proved to be one of great value. It is probably read more widely by the general membership of the Society than the "scientific" articles. It has been a struggle throughout the years to keep a record of felt earthquakes. The public, both scientific and lay, have become so enamored of epicenters and magnitudes that there is danger of neglecting field observations.

In the minutes of the meeting of the Board of Directors on November 3, 1911 appear two very significant paragraphs: (1) "President Branner read a letter from Mr. Robert W. Sayles, of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, a member of the Society, offering a gift of $5,000.00 to be used as a Publication Fund during the next five years. The generous gift was accepted with expressions of gratitude and hearty appreciation on the part of the directors." (It is interesting to note in the Treasurer's report as of February 15, 1961 that some $3,900 still remained in that fund. Part of the fund was lost by bad investment during the Depression. The Directors have been a frugal lot during the years.) (2) "Director Lawson then offered the following resolution which was unanimously adopted: Resolved:--that it is the sense of the Board of Directors of the Seismological Society of America, representing the membership of the Society, that the maintenance and improvement of the Bulletin of the Society is the very best means of furthering the purposes for which the Society was organized ....;" In reading the early records of the Society one is impressed by the shrewdness of Andrew C. Lawson. In the above resolution we have the answer to those who have said, "The Society does nothing but publish the Bulletin."

About 1920 a curious item is to be noted. Secretary Townley introduced the then popular simplified spelling into his typed minutes. However, it disappeared when printed in the Bulletin. At first sight this appears odd since Townley was also Editor. However, the Stanford University Press no doubt had the final say in the matter.

During the early years Professor Banner frequently gave funds to publish certain numbers of the Bulletin. The National Research Council also gave funds for publication.

In 1921 Townley became chairman of the Publications Committee on the death of Branner.

In 1923 the Society published the Fault Map of California as a number of the Bulletin. It was compiled by Bailey Willis and Harry Wood and was financed by gifts from members and friends of the Society. Willis was the prime mover in getting the funds.

In the report of the Secretary-Treasurer for April 5, 1924 to April 4, 1925 is mentioned a gift of $5,000 from the Carnegie Foundation of New York to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said amount to be paid to the Seismological Society of America to defray expenses of publishing certain scientific papers in the Bulletin. Arthur Day was to select those papers.

In 1925 there was an exchange of letters regarding changing the name of the "Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America" to "Seismology." Apparently it was Professor Townley's suggestion.

In 1933 the months of issuance of the Bulletin were changed to January, April, July, and October.

In 1934 the National Academy of Sciences gave $1,000 to be used for printing certain papers in the Bulletin.

In 1935 the Geological Society of America began subsidizing the Bulletin of the Seismological Society to be the amount of $1,500 a year. This subsidy has continued in varying amounts.

On April 11, 1935 George D. Louderback was named Editor of the Bulletin, Townley having asked to be relieved. The new editor moved the publication of the Bulletin from the Stanford University Press to the University of California Press. Townley had done the editorial work for twenty-five years, first as a member of the Publications Committee, then as chairman of that committee. The new Constitution (October 17, 1930) had given him the title Editor. He became President on leaving the Editorship and the following year resigned from the Board.

The January 1939 number of the Bulletin was the "Descriptive Catalog of Earthquakes of the Pacific Coast of the United States 1769 to 1928" by Sidney D. Townley and Maxwell W. Allen. It included a revision of the earlier "catalogues" of Holden and of McAdie. (Since 1928 similar information is contained in the annual publication of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey called United States Earthquakes.)

Volume 36, No. 3 (July 1946) was the "Catalogue of Philippine Earthquakes, 1589-1899" by William C. Repetti, S.J.

Volume 44, No. 2B (April 1954) was "An Engineering Study of the Southern California Earthquake of July 21, 1952 and Its Aftershocks" by Karl. V. Steinbrugge and Donald F. Moran. This number was financed by the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau.

On November 9, 1956 the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors appointed Don Tocher Editor of the Bulletin to replace George D. Louderback, who had resigned because of ill health.

The publication of the Bulletin was transferred from the University of California Press to the Waverly Press (Baltimore) in 1960.

On May 5, 1961 William Mansfield Adams was appointed Editor, succeeding Don Tocher, who resigned after five years of service.

Policy Statements and Extramural Actions

Certain statements on policy have been described in the above paragraphs of the very early days. One such was the support of the unsuccessful efforts of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to establish a seismological institute in California. In 1910, however, the Society produced a circular stating that it did strongly favor "the establishment of a National Bureau of Seismology with power" to collect seismological data, establish observing stations, study and investigate national earthquake regions, and cooperate with other scientific bodies.

In 1910 the Society proposed geodetic observations along the San Andreas Fault. It was the opinion of a committee that this could best be accomplished "by establishing series of monuments extending out in a direction approximately normal to the San Andreas Rift at suitable localities." The committee proposed at least three lines of monuments, at Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, and the Mojave Desert.

At the meeting of the Board on May 25, 1921, on motion of Professor Lawson, a resolution was passed calling on the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to determine by geodetic means the movement of bench marks in regions of seismic activity.

At the Board meeting on April 10, 1926, a committee was appointed under the chairmanship of Bailey Willis. This committee was authorized to solicit and collect funds for the construction and equipment of seismometric stations in the San Francisco Bay region. (This followed a similar program for southern California started by the Carnegie Institution of Washington.) The President also announced that through a gift from an anonymous donor it had been possible to make arrangements with the School of Engineering of Stanford University to carry on experiments to study the effects on various structures of the application of forces similar to earthquakes. This resulted in the shaking table experiments of Lydik Jacobsen and his colleagues.

In the first part of 1926, the Society in collaboration with the California Academy of Science held a series of public lectures (once a month for five lectures) on earthquakes. These were presented in the auditorium of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Three of these lectures were given by Bailey Willis, one by Perry Byerly, and one by Henry Dewell. Bailey Willis was probably the most active President the Society has had. He was influential in the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and obtained an endorsement of that club several times for projects of the Society.

On January 28, 1933 the Board of Directors passed a resolution commending the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey for its work in collecting field data on the effects of earthquakes and requesting a strengthening of that service.

At the meeting of the Society on April 8, 1933 at the University of California in Los Angeles the membership instructed the Board of Directors to draw up a statement setting forth the earthquake hazard in California and recommending that all buildings be constructed in all their parts to withstand a horizontal force of one tenth their weight. The Directors on July 1, 1933 issued the statement, which was sent out widely in the state. It was also printed in the Bulletin, volume XXIII, page 188. (It was still considered somewhat daring in 1933 to speak so bluntly, and at least one of the Directors was a little fearful.)

At the meeting of the Board on January 27, 1934 the President (Louderback) was authorized to proceed toward an "affiliation" of the Society with the Geological Society of America. This stemmed from the hope that the Geological Society, with its new wealth from the Penrose bequest, would aid other science organizations. The President treated long with Geological Society officers and this led to many years of support of our Bulletin by that Society (as mentioned earlier).

At the Directors' meeting on January 8, 1941 the "Advisory Committee on Seismology" was appointed, and the Secretary instructed to notify the Director of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey of the Committee's existence and its willingness to advise him. This committee for many years was asked re geodetic surveys across faults. (In practice the chairman acted alone in the matter.) The title of this committee was the same as that of an earlier committee of the Carnegie Institution of Washington which had advised that institution during the establishment of Pasadena Seismological Laboratory. The Advisory Committee on Seismology of the Society was discontinued in 1959 and the Executive Committee instructed to advise the Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey when and if such advice was requested.

On February 17, 1945 the Directors voted to affiliate with the American Geological Institute. This affiliation has continued. With the reorganization of the Institute currently in process it has been recommended that the Society become a "charter associate member."

Sections

At the Directors' meeting on February 7, 1921 Secretary Townley "spoke of the formation of the Southwest Section of the Seismological Society." In the Bulletin for March 1921 Frank Rolfe described the formation of this section after the Inglewood earthquake. Its first meeting was at the home of Homer Laughlin, Jr., where William Mulholland was elected President. The old files contain a copy of a questionnaire sent out by this section to get information on the intensity of felt earthquakes. There are minutes of several meetings, all in 1921.

At a meeting of the Southwest Section on April 28, 1921 Professor Clapp said we should not so much put the soft pedal on earthquake reports as to treat them in a lighter vein, rather making fun of them than to exaggerate their awful effects.

The Directors seem not to have worried about the legality of this section. But when the matter of the formation of an Eastern Section (by Nicholas H. Heck, Rev. James B. Macelwane, S.J., and Ernest A. Hodgson) came up there was long and fairly heated correspondence. At the Board meeting on April 10, 1926 the formation of an Eastern Section of the Society was approved "under certain specified conditions, subject to the revision of the constitution now under consideration." This section has flourished and published its own journal, Earthquake Notes, for many years.

Accomplishments of the Society

The early directors agreed that the publishing of the Bulletin was the most important service the Society could perform. This has been done in an excellent fashion.

The founding members talked a great deal about influencing public opinion, particularly of the tendency of the press and of business to attempt to suppress earthquake information. This day has passed and largely perhaps due to the activities of the Society. Since the Santa Barbara and the Long Beach earthquakes the public view has changed.

The continual support by the Society of the seismological activities of the Coast and Geodetic Survey has borne fruit.

The Seismological Society of America has been a success.


About the Author

Perry Byerly served as Secretary of the Seismological Society of America from 1930 to 1957.

Last Modified: 2008 Jul 23

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