Eastern Section History

ES-logo-smallHistory of the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America

Prepared by the 1999 ES-SSA Executive Committee:
Jer-Ming Chiu, Gail Atkinson, Maurice Lamontagne, Waverly Person, and Christine Powell


At the 70th annual ES-SSA meeting, held at Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania, on October 18-20, 1998, the Executive Committee of the ES-SSA accepted the offer extended to them to include a brief history of the ES-SSA and other relevant information on the SSA Web site. Our thanks go to John Ebel of the Weston Observatory, who brought to our attention several historical reports and papers concerning the history of the ES-SSA. In a memorial issue dedicated to Reverend Dr. James B. Macelwane, S.J. (Earthquake Notes, Vol. XXVII, June 1956), Ernest A. Hodgson presented a review of the contribution of Father Macelwane to the founding of the ES-SSA. In the same issue Henry F. Birkenhauer, S.J. reviewed the history of the Jesuit Seismological Association and Father Macelwane’s effort to revive the interest of the Jesuits in seismology. A paper by Reverend J. J. Lynch of Fordham University (Earthquake Notes, Vol. XXXIX, March-June 1968) presented a very detailed description of the history of the ES-SSA and several early ES-SSA meetings. More recently, Daniel Linehan, S.J. presented an abbreviated history of seismology in the United States (Earthquake Notes, Vol. 50, No. 1, January-March 1979) during a luncheon address to the 50th annual meeting of the ES-SSA, October 17, 1978, held at Weston Observatory, Massachusetts. His paper outlined the history of ES-SSA and its association with the parent society, the SSA. These papers are now available in order to allow future seismologists to catch easily the spirit behind the founders of the ES-SSA and to understand the historical aspect of the annual Jesuit Seismological Association Award given by the ES-SSA to seismologists who provide leadership and have significant contributions in observational seismology in eastern North America.

Ernest A. Hodgson (Earthquake Notes, Vol. XXVII, June 1956, 11-12)

The more recent members of the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America have been reminded at various annual meetings during the past few years that Father Macelwane was one of those responsible for the formation of the Section. It now seems a fitting time to place on record some of the details of the organization of the Section, early in 1926.

The parent Society was founded in California in 1907 [sic], following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Most of what might be called “local” interest in earthquakes was confined to that section of the country. The seismological work in the east during the early part of the present century was confined to station recording and was carried on mostly by Father Tondorf of Georgetown, Father Macelwane of Saint Louis, Professor Woodworth of Harvard, Professor Hobbs of Ann Arbor, Dr. Klotz of Ottawa, and the United Sates government, at first through the Weather Bureau and later by the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

At the time of the founding of the parent Society, no provision was made for the formation of any Section. But during the early 1920’s, the active seismologists in the east began to feel the need for some organization which would permit discussion and the correlation of activities. All meetings of the Society were held in California and, especially during those days, it was difficult or impossible for eastern members of the Society to attend.

It was not desirable that a separate Society be formed in the east. Efforts were made to secure an amendment to the Constitution of the Seismological Society of America to permit the formation of an Eastern Section. Father Macelwane, Captain (then Commander) Heck of the Coast Survey, and Dr. Day, Director of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, were in the van of those pressing for such an amendment.

In 1925, Dr. Bailey Willis was President of the Seismological Society of America and was known to be in sympathy with the proposed amendment. Nevertheless, nothing was done; action was postponed and delayed. Serious consideration was being given to the project of forming a separate society in the east.

In December 1925, the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was held in Kansas City. It was very well attended. Heck, Father Macelwane, and Hodgson were present and spent a good deal of time discussing the possibilities of forming an Eastern Section. They returned to Saint Louis on January 2, 1926. Heck and Hodgson put up at the Melbourne Hotel, adjacent to Saint Louis University. The next morning they met Father Macelwane on the street in front of the university. He was on his way to their hotel. His face was beaming as he produced a letter from President Willis authorizing the formation, pro tem, of an Eastern Section, subject to later authorization by the Directors of the Society. He stipulated that there must be three interested persons to undertake the organization.

The Eastern Section was promptly formed, there on Grand Boulevard, with Father Macelwane as Chairman, Hodgson as Vice-Chairman, and Heck as Secretary-Treasurer. The Vice-Chairman was to organize, compile, and distribute a Bibliographical Bulletin; the two other officers were to draft a Constitution and By-Laws and to secure members.

It was agreed that the membership should be restricted to those living east of the Mississippi, with an exception taking care of the metropolitan area of Saint Louis; and, in Canada, those living in Ontario or east thereof. Persons living beyond these limits might become associate members or subscribers but could not have a voice in the administration.

The next few months were busy ones for all three officers. The first Annual Meeting was held in Washington on May 1, 1926, the sessions being convened in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. The initial paper was given by President Bailey Willis, in which he announced that the necessary authorization for the organization of the Section was assured and was underway.

The officers, who had been acting in an interim capacity, were appointed for the coming year by the voice of the meeting. The membership roll, at that time, showed 105 active and 19 associate members. The afternoon session registered an attendance of 50. It was arranged that the second annual meeting should be held at Cambridge.

At the Washington meeting, Father Macelwane presented a paper on the organization of the Jesuit Seismological Association (nineteen stations) by Father Odenbach in 1909, and its reorganization in 1925 with eleven stations, the central station being at Saint Louis.

Father Macelwane presided at the second Annual Meeting, held at Cambridge, May 4-5, 1927. The slate of officers was reappointed. The third Annual Meeting was planned for the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville. The active membership at the time of the Cambridge meeting was 177. The number of associate members at that time is not known. The third Annual Meeting was duly held at Charlottesville, April 1-3, 1928. Father Macelwane had, in the meantime, resigned as chairman of the Eastern Section, having been appointed President of the Seismological Society of America. The active membership was now 186. The meetings, continued for three days counting excursions, were well attended.

It may safely be said that Father Macelwane, more than any other one man, was the prime mover in founding the Eastern Section. He enjoyed the counsel of Commander Heck and Dr. Day. In California he was well and favorably known. He had taken his doctorate degree at the University of California only a few years before. He was a good friend of Bailey Willis, who held the strategic position of President of the Seismological Society. Father Macelwane and President Willis conspired to find a way to permit the founding of the Eastern Section and they pushed it through. Father Macelwane contributed much to the subsequent work of the organization. He continued his interest, his influence, and his assistance throughout the years. With him, he brought the widespread and active cooperation of the Jesuit Seismological Association.

Henry F. Birkenhauer, S.J. (Earthquake Notes, Vol. XXVII, June 1956, 12-13)

The Jesuit Seismological Service was founded by the Reverend Frederick L. Odenbach, S.J. when he was director of the Angelo Secci Observatory at St. Ignatius College (now John Carroll University) in 1911. Father Odenbach’s work continued for about a decade, but as the Jesuit fathers whom he had interested in operating the stations grew older and replacements were not provided, the activity of the organization lapsed. Father Macelwane, when he returned from his doctorate studies at the University of California, devoted himself immediately to reviving the interest of the Jesuits in seismology. He called the revised group the Jesuit Seismological Association. In 1925, the JSA came back to life at Loyola University in Chicago.

Father Macelwane was quick to see that interest in the organization could only be kept alive if young men were constantly trained to succeed the fathers who were currently operating the stations. He insisted with the Jesuit Superiors that men be set aside for this work. He devoted a great deal of time and energy to training these men personally. He himself led geologic field parties whose personnel consisted entirely of Jesuits to Canon City, Colorado in 1934, 1937, 1941, and 1943. On these trips he drew upon his vast knowledge of the geology of the western states. He personally supervised the geological mapping which was done. He conducted classes in the evening around a gasoline lantern. He was guide, teacher, religious superior, and man-about-the-tent.

Reverend J. Joseph Lynch, S.J. (Earthquake Notes, Vol. XXXIX, Mar.-June 1968, 40-44)

The birth of the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America took place at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Kansas City, December 1925. A group of Eastern seismologists, most of them directors of the Seismological Society of America, met and decided to form an Eastern Section of the SSA. This decision was of course taken after consultation with, and with the blessing of, the parent organization. The temporary officers elected at this meeting were Father James B. Macelwane, S.J., of St. Louis University, Chairman; Mr. Ernest Hodgson of the Dominion Observatory, Ottawa, Vice-Chairman; and Commander Nicholas Heck, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Secretary-Treasurer. In his report of the President of the SSA for 1925-1926, Dr. Bailey Willis said of this decision: “With reference to the development of the Society itself, the most important event has been the organization of the Eastern Section. It is a movement which equals in significant interest the original founding of the Society; indeed it may be considered that in view of the momentum already gained by the original Society and the large population exposed to the earthquake risk in the Eastern States, the organization of the Eastern Section might be regarded as of preeminent importance.

“The founders of the Eastern Section are all of them Directors of the parent Society and are especially active in promoting its interests. The liaison is therefore intimate, and we may confidently anticipate that the development of the new Section will greatly augment the resources and the usefulness of the Seismological Society.”

The first meeting of the Section was held in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1926. The temporary officers were confirmed for 1926. Dr. Bailey Willis, President of the Seismological Society of America, attended this meeting and said in his opening address: “The Seismological Society of America has by vote of its directors approved the formation of the Eastern Section in accordance with such articles of organization as may be formulated in amending the constitution of the Society to that end. This action was made necessary because the constitution as originally drawn up contains no provisions for sections. The Eastern Section is represented on the committee which is charged with drawing the amendment for sections, among others, and it is understood that the basis of organization will be the articles originally prepared by the President and accepted in developing the Section to the point of holding this, its first meeting.

“It is with profound satisfaction that I welcome the Eastern Section to its place as an important, I might say vital, organ of the Society. Its area covers the regions of denser population and the greater number of centers of concentrated life and property in the United States and Canada. Through it, the Society thus comes to function actively in those regions where the earthquake risk is greatest, though perhaps not most immediate. Your task will be to educate these growing communities to the fact that they can safeguard themselves against inevitable future shocks, provided they promote the study of earthquakes and the adoption of those measures of safety which are already recognized by seismologists and engineers, or which may be developed.”

The second meeting of the Section was held at Massachusetts Institute of technology in Cambridge, Mass., in 1927. Meantime, Fr. Macelwane had been elected to fill the remainder of the term of President Sayles of the SSA, who had resigned because of pressure of business. Fr. Macelwane was elected the following year for a full term as President of the SSA. Fr. Macelwane resigned as Chairman of the Eastern Section on his election to the Presidency of the SSA. The work of the Section was carried on in the interim by Mr. Hodgson as Vice-Chairman, with the aid of the Executive Committee. Mr. Hodgson was then elected Chairman in 1928, to be followed by Dr. McAdie in 1929, Fr. Lynch in 1930, Dr. Taber in 1931, Dr. Wenner in 1932, Fr. Stechschulte, S. J., in 1933, Dr. Don Leet in 1934, etc.

The third meeting of the Section was held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1928. The fourth meeting was a joint meeting with the SSA, held at Fordham University in 1929, and the fifth meeting, a joint meeting with the American Geophysical Union, was held in Washington, D.C. in 1930. It was at this meeting on May 6 that a telegram was read from Dr. S. D. Townley, Secretary of the Seismological Society of America, announcing the adoption of the new constitution of the Society, and providing for the formation of sections. Thus, the Eastern Section began its legal existence as the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America on May 6, 1930. It was in this year, too, that the publication of the papers presented at the meetings appeared as the “Proceedings” of the meetings. Hitherto, abstracts of the papers were published in Earthquake Notes, and some papers were published in full in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. This publication of the Proceedings was made possible by financial contributions from Fordham and Georgetown Universities, Mr. John R. Freeman, and several anonymous donors.

Travel to and from these early meetings was invariably by carpool, and the bull sessions in the cars often provided an interesting part of the meeting. I recall vividly our drive down to the meeting in South Carolina in 1931. We were in three cars and usually stayed together. Some distance outside Raleigh, Frank Wenner’s car needed gas, so we pulled over to a gas station and called the attendant over and asked him to “fill her up.” The attendant very respectfully said, “Sir, I dassn’t sell any gas while church service is going on.” “How long will the service be ?” asked Frank. “I don’t rightly know, sir. It depends on how the preacher is feeling. If’n he’s in good form, it could be quite a while. We tells when it’s over when we see the folks coming out of the church.”

We sat patiently in the car for an hour or more. Frank Wenner had just completed his famous Wenner seismometer at the Bureau of Standards, so the time was put to good use in hearing an exhaustive description of his instrument. Frank, however, was never a person to bore his audience. He would intersperse his account with humorous asides. On this occasion, some questions were asked about the damping of his instrument. In the course of his reply, he made use of the Greek letter µ. Turning aside with a smile he said, “This calls to my mind an interesting incident that happened while I was driving through Virginia. They had tried to improve the culture of a little school by introducing Greek into the curriculum. As I was stopped for a light outside the school, I overheard one youngster say to another, ‘Is you did your Greek this morning?'” Frank then went back to further elaboration of damping and the Greek µ. The hour passed quickly, and the exodus of the congregation from the local Baptist church was the signal for the gas attendant to fill up Frank’s tank. Commander, later Captain, Heck was in our car. His wit was even drier than Frank Wenner’s. He usually told dog stories. The one that he told on that occasion was hoary, but not shaggy. It was the story of the mailman who was timid about entering a driveway with a barking dog chained inside. A passerby said to him “Haven’t you heard that barking dogs never bite?” “Yes,” said the mailman. “I have heard it, but has that dog heard it?” The mailman entered cautiously and the dog lunged at him and did its best to take a piece out of his pants, but just missed. The next time that the mailman met the owner on the street he said to him, “How’s your dog?” The owner replied, “I did.” Unfortunately, this is a story that must be narrated and not written, because the mailman’s “How’s” would have to be spelled “House”, and that would give Captain Heck’s joke away with the first word.

Shortly after South Carolina, we had a meeting in Philadelphia as guests of the Franklin Institute. We had our banquet in the Bellevue Stratford. I think it was also Captain Heck at this dinner who began his speech, “As earthquakers, we are very much at home in this Quakertown of Philadelphia, even though our aims are more earthly than the lofty ones of the real Quakers.”

But I have already exceeded the space allotted to trivia.

Daniel Linehan, S.J. (Earthquake Notes, Vol. 50, No. 1, Jan.-Mar. 1979, 1-9)
*Only portions of Linehan’s original paper concerning the history of ES-SSA are included here.*

On January 31, 1925, by an act of Congress and approved by the President, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCGS) became the center of seismological studies for the U.S. government.

“In March, 1925, a scheme of cooperation (between Science Service) and Division of Terrestrial Magnetism and Seismology of the USCGS was effected, and in January, 1926, this was extended to include the Jesuit Seismological Association (JSA) which numbers in its membership the numerous seismograph stations of the Jesuit Colleges.” (BSSA, Vol. XVI, p.41: Watson Davis)

This scheme permitted stations to telegraph data to Washington, and Science Service paid for the transmissions. The messages were sent according to a modification of the Gerrish Astronomical Code. The data were sent to the USCGS in Washington and the Central Station of the JSA at St. Louis University. Preliminary determinations of epicenters were made at both centers, and Science Service sent these determinations to about 100 papers in all parts of the country.

We can see that many of the hopes and ambitions of the founders of the SSA were slowly being realized. The Society was becoming well established on the west coast. Seismologists were being trained, and engineers were writing articles on earthquake resistant engineering for the Bulletin. As of 1926, the Society had grown to 856 members (including subscriptions to libraries) during the seventeen years from its founding. The aim of the Society to allay the fear of earthquakes through knowledge was being attained; scientific data were being spread through the public press to acquaint the public of facts and not rumors or fiction. Also, the government had approved the study by its appointment of the USCGS as its center. …

We have tried in this very brief summation to present a small part of the beginning of our seismological family in North America. How we began some seventy odd years ago unorganized, untutored, and unknown by our own government. At the moment, we are not surpassed by any similar group in the world. Many of the hopes of the early founders have been realized, but there have been growing pains this Section has experienced.

There have been times when some members of the Eastern Section considered us to be “poor cousins” or “ugly ducklings” in the seismic family. That was not the opinion of the parent society some fifty years ago. The first officers of the Eastern Section were, all of them, directors of the parent society and active in promoting its interests. They formed the Eastern Section to allow promotion of seismic studies east of the Rockies and to further the work of the SSA. There have been times when some have thought that the Eastern Section should be abandoned, but, as has been said, we are vital and of pre-eminent importance to the parent society. This publication plans an important part in the existence of the Eastern Section. Besides providing space for minutes, abstracts, and notices, it is the medium whereby seismological research of eastern North America may be propagated to the 800 members and subscribers in various parts of the world.

This publication also affords a brief history of the Section and its activities. When this meeting was announced as the 50th meeting of the Section, I wondered, “Why 50th?”, when the Section was older than that. I went from Vol. I., No. 1 to the present, and the notes showed that executive committees during World War II called off the meetings. …

I must admit that I enjoyed every minute of this review. It brought back memories of some wonderful men and women who were also interested in seismology. Fr. Macelwane, Ernest Hodgson, Captain Heck, Florence Robertson, Don Leet, Maurice Ewing. Fr. Sohon, chemical engineer, astronomer, mathematician, and seismologist, who could print his own Deep Focus Travel Times on a sheet of typewriting paper, and on the other side how to get more “soot” from a kerosene lamp for smoking the grams.

I would be extremely remiss if I did not state one more name, Mr. Leonard Murphy of the USCGS, who did much to further seismology, not only in the Eastern Section and in North America, but in the world. He was outstanding as a seismologist, an administrator, and most of all, to the credit of these United States and an example to all of us, a gentleman.

In closing, may we wish all prosperity to the Eastern Section and may you realize that seismology is a cooperative science and that seismologists must cooperate to forward the ends of that science.