Ben Howell’s History of SSA

History of the Seismological Society of America

by B.F. Howell, Jr.
The Pennsylvania State University

This article originally appeared in Seismological Research Letters (Vol. 73, No. 1, January/February 2002).


Aftershocks of the 18 April earthquake were still being felt on 30 August 1906 when Alexander G. McAdie called a meeting to organize what was to become the Seismological Society of America (henceforth abbreviated SSA) (Leuchner, 1908; Byerly, 1964). Townley (1922) credits William R. Eckert, a San Francisco engineer, with suggesting to McAdie that a society be formed. Thirteen people attended (see Byerly, 1964, for a list of those present).

George Davidson was elected Chairman of the meeting and George D. Louderback Secretary. Davidson appointed a committee of nine to organize the Society. A subcommittee composed of Louderback, McAdie, and Joseph N. LeConte drew up articles of incorporation, a constitution, and bylaws. These were approved at the first regular meeting of the Society on 20 November 1906. Then as today, the Constitution called for a board of twelve directors, who elected a president, three vice-presidents (now only one), a secretary, and a treasurer from among their members. The original constitution was reprinted by Byerly (1964). The first elected board consisted of Charles Burckhalter, William W. Campbell, Davidson, Charles Derleth, Grove K. Gilbert, Andrew C. Lawson, LeConte, Armin O. Leuschner, Louderback, McAdie, Jerome S. Ricard, and Thomas J. J. See.

Who were these men who first led the Society? Six were professors at the University of California at Berkeley (henceforth abbreviated Berkeley). Davidson was Professor Emeritus of Geography. Derleth was Professor of Structural Engineering. Lawson was Head of the Department of Geology. LeConte was Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Leuchner of Astronomy, and Louderback of Geology. Note the role of engineers in the Society from the start. Two others were also astronomers: Burckhalter at Chabot Observatory and Campbell at Lick Observatory. See was Professor of Mathematics at the Mare Island Naval Observatory and Ricard at the University of Santa Clara. Two others were government employees: McAdie was in charge of the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau, and Gilbert was with the U.S. Geological Survey. Thus eight were scientists, two were engineers, and two were mathematicians. None of them was considered a seismologist or even a geophysicist, professions which were to be recognized only years later. Six were, however, already involved in seismological work. Burckhalter, Campbell, Davidson, Gilbert, and Leuchner were all members of the California State Investigating Commission, appointed by Governor Pardee three days after the earthquake, that, under Lawson’s leadership, was preparing the report of the 1906 earthquake (Lawson, 1908; Reid, 1910).

At the first director’s meeting, held on 1 December 1906, Davidson was elected President, Lawson, See, and McAdie Vice-Presidents, Louderback Secretary, and LeConte Treasurer (Table 1). Four of these six were Berkeley faculty.

At their earliest meetings, members of the Society exhibited a strong interest in developing research on earthquakes. At the first formal meeting of the Society (20 November 1906) Derleth, LeConte, and See were appointed to “investigate the period of chimneys.” There was for many years a “Scientific Council”, but as no minutes of its meetings are in the Society’s files, it is uncertain what it did. Its members were prominent scientists, so their work may represent its accomplishments. Byerly (1964) says appointment to it was partly honorary.

The second meeting of the Society was held on 9 January 1909 (Townley, 1922, p. 2; Branner, 1911). There was discussion of the importance of getting information on earthquakes to the public at this meeting. This concern may have been related to a tendency before 1906 to suppress information on the occurrence of earthquakes in California. A report on the 1868 Hayward earthquake was supposedly suppressed because of the fear that knowledge of the danger of earthquakes would discourage migration to California (Lawson, 1908, p. 434; see also Lawson, 1911, p. 3); but Aldrich et al. (1976) have shown that this report simply never was published.

At early meetings of the Society’s directors there was much discussion of the need to set monuments in rows across the San Andreas Fault, whose relative motion would detail the motions of the adjoining blocks. Some monuments were erected and measured (see Bull. Seism. Soc. Am. 2, p. 148). Discussion of this project gradually faded. It appears possible that the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (henceforth abbreviated CGS) may have taken responsibility for mapping these displacements, although Housner (1997, p. 68) states that John R. Freeman got the CGS into earthquake measurements only in 1937.

A new Board of Directors was elected in 1909. The Board chose Lawson as President, but he went on sabbatical from Berkeley the following year to carry out field work in the Rainy Lake region of Ontario for the Geological Survey of Canada (Vaughan, 1970), and John C. Branner, Professor of Geology and Vice-President of Stanford University, took his place as President of the Society. Townley (1922) states that Branner “revived a nearly defunct society.”

The Townley Years (1911–1929)

Financially, the Society was in bad shape when Branner took over. No dues had been collected in 1909–1910 due to the illness of the Secretary. The impetus of the 1906 earthquake was fading. Branner saw that the Society needed a new strategy to get it going. He proposed publication of the Bulletin (henceforth abbreviated BSSA) and served as Chairman of the Editorial Board (along with Lawson and Townley) until 1921, when Townley became Editor (although Byerly [1964] claims that Townley did most of the editorial work from the start). Branner had recruited his colleague at Stanford as Secretary, Treasurer, and member of the Editorial Committee.

Townley, an astronomer, had been in charge of the International Latitude Observatory at Ukiah, California from 1903 to 1907. He became interested in earthquakes at the time of the San Francisco earthquake and accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics at Stanford in 1907. He gave up the Secretary-Treasurership only in 1930 but continued as Editor until 1935, when he was elected President of the Society at the age of 68. He continued research in seismology until 1939, when he and Maxwell W. Allen completed the Descriptive Catalog of Earthquakes of the Pacific Coast (BSSA 29:1). He died in 1946 (Louderback, 1946). Throughout much of its early history, the Society was run primarily by its secretaries. From 1910 to 1929 Secretary Townley missed only one Directors meeting, but the president was absent most of the time, especially if he was an Easterner, and one of the vice-presidents presided.

BSSA became the principal activity and expense of the Society, published quarterly (March, June, September, and December) starting in 1911 and printed by the Stanford University Press. A series of gifts from Branner helped pay for publication. The money situation was eased by a gift of a “publication fund” of $5,000 from Robert W. Sayles, a geology-museum curator at Harvard University who possessed inherited wealth (Swinnerton, 1944). This fund has been carried as a special item in Treasurer’s reports to the present. Interest and small amounts have been used from time to time, but the principal was invested so that the fund grew to $66,965 in 2000. The importance of this gift may be understood by noting that Sayles was named a “Patron” of the Society in 1912, the only person ever so honored.

The series “Seismological Notes” first appeared in the September 1911 issue. At first this consisted of miscellaneous notes on various earthquakes, but as the volume of data available increased, this gradually became reduced to reports of very large worldwide earthquakes plus larger U.S. events. Authorship was not indicated before 1965 but was presumably BSSA’s editor.

In 1965, Editor Bruce A. Bolt (BSSA 55, p. 661) reported that “the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey will take over the manuscript duties of the Seismological Notes.” James F. Lander performed this task from 1965 to 1973, and Waverly J. Person has done so since then. Publication costs were underwritten in part by grants from the National Research Council.

Figure 1 is a graph of the Society’s income, expenditures, and annual balances. In 1919 and 1921 the Society ended the year with a zero balance and outstanding bills, although these could have been paid by two funds that the Society treated as endowment: the income from life memberships and the Sayles fund. Income from these funds has been used occasionally to help cover expenditures, but the principal was rarely touched until recently.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Annual undesignated income, expenditures, and year-end balances. (In 1960 the fiscal year was extended by one month. Thereafter this report is for the year ending the following January 31.)

Except for the organizational period (1906–1911), directors’ meetings were poorly attended until 1946 (following World War II). Directors from outside of California were generally absent until 1951. Minutes of the 1912–1945 directors’ meetings show a majority of the directors to have been present only nine times, and business was often transacted by action of only three or four members. The first directors’ meeting after 1911 with a majority of the members present was held on 18 April 1928, at which time “the Board by formal vote approved all acts of previous Boards when a quorum was not present” (BSSA 18, p. 137). There was not another majority until 1933.

This low attendance seems surprising today but reflected the difficulty of travel. Until air travel became safe and convenient in the 1950’s, it took three or four days each way to travel by train across North America, and few seismologists could afford the time or money for this trip unless sponsored by their employers. The current prevalence of research grants supporting the reporting of results of investigations has had the beneficial effect of making possible increased participation in Society affairs.

Of the 56 persons who served as directors of the Society from 1906 to 1950, 38 were Californians (I have counted McAdie, who moved to Harvard in 1913, as a Californian). Seventeen came from the Eastern states or Ontario, one (Jagger) from Hawaii, and one, H. O. Wood, was a Research Associate at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1917 when first elected to the Board and then moved to Washington, D.C. (where he was Acting Secretary of the National Research Council and a research associate working for the Carnegie Institution). He moved to California in 1921. After 1956 the Board became more national in membership.

During the Townley years almost all of the California directors were from the San Francisco area. Interest in U.S. earthquakes was focused on the area involved in the 1906 earthquake. One person who saw this focus as too narrow was H. O. Wood. Hired as an Instructor in Mineralogy and Geology at Berkeley in 1904, Wood was drafted by Lawson to help with the field studies of the 1906 earthquake and subsequently to operate the Berkeley seismograph station and even to teach a course in seismology. He left Berkeley in 1912 (perhaps with only a Master degree he saw his future there as limited), accepting a position as Research Associate at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. While there, he published papers on the need to study the earthquakes of southern California (Wood, 1916, 1918). Wood believed that the study of minor shocks would locate the faults on which later shocks would occur and thereby delineate earthquake risk, which he believed was as great in southern as in northern California. Together with Bailey Willis, Professor of Geology at Stanford, he prepared the first comprehensive fault map of California (Willis, 1923). He was elected to the Board of Directors from 1917 to 1939 and was a vice-president in most of those years.

During World War I Wood worked in the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C. on the problem of locating large guns using the sound waves from their detonation. While in Washington he convinced Arthur L. Day of the Carnegie Institution of the importance of studying southern California earthquakes. A Carnegie Committee on Seismology was appointed in 1921, and it recommended that Carnegie establish a network of seismograph stations in southern California. Wood was put in charge of this project (Wood, 1947), and he hired Hugo Benioff and Charles Richter to participate in this work. Benioff and J. A. Anderson of Carnegie’s Mount Wilson Astronomical Observatory were given the task of designing improved seismographs (Anderson and Wood, 1925; Benioff, 1932, 1935), and Richter began his life’s work of studying the earthquakes of southern California. Anderson’s short-period horizontal seismographs recorded local earthquakes (and teleseisms) better than the long-period instruments then in use. These instruments were first used at the Mount Wilson Observatory office in Pasadena in 1922. A pair was also installed on the campus of the California Institute of Technology (henceforth abbreviated Caltech) shortly thereafter (Goodstein, 1991). Benioff soon thereafter designed a companion vertical-component seismometer (as well as other instruments).

The Society met initially independently, usually on a university campus. The original Bylaws (BSSA 54, p. 1,735) called for an annual meeting, but this seems to have been skipped in 1907 and 1911 (Table 2). The early meetings were more informal affairs than those held today, with only a few papers presented (Figure 2). There was no meeting in 1916 or 1918 (during World War I), in 1920, or in 1943–1945 (during World War II). There was no meeting of the parent Society in 1926, 1927, or 1930, but there were meetings of the Eastern Section in those years. (The requirement of an annual meeting would be dropped in 1945.) Except for the 1914 meeting in Seattle, Washington, 1922 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and 1925 in Portland, Oregon, the Society met (except for years with no meeting) somewhere in California until 1930.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Number of papers at annual meetings.

Beginning in 1917 the Society affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and met with its Pacific Division until 1932, except in 1921. The AAAS also provided some financial help to the Society in the form of a fund for the field study of earthquakes. The minutes of the 1919 directors’ meeting show that Homer Hamlin, Chief Engineer of Los Angeles, was authorized to receive $5 per month for collecting reports of southern California earthquakes, a task taken over by the CGS in 1925 (Heck, 1936). Other special gifts supported Mattei’s (1917) study of two Santa Barbara Channel earthquakes and in 1923 a group of papers on the 1920 Inglewood earthquake.

The 29 January 1925 earthquake at Santa Barbara greatly stimulated interest in seismology in the United States and demonstrated the wisdom of Carnegie’s observatories in southern California. Carnegie established a network of seismic stations (Mount Wilson, La Jolla, Riverside, and Santa Barbara) in 1927 in cooperation with Caltech. This was headquartered in the Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena that “belonged to the California Institute of Technology” but was supported by the Carnegie Institution (Wood, 1947). By 1929 stations had been added in the Owens Valley at Haiwee and Tinemaha. A station was added at Palomar Mountain in 1939. After Beno Gutenberg’s appointment as a Caltech professor in 1930, Carnegie’s interest in seismology declined, and by 1941 the whole operation had been turned over to Caltech (Goodstein, 1991). Arthur L. Day, stimulated by H. O. Wood and supported by John Merriam of Carnegie, appears to have been the individual whose vision lay behind these actions. Beginning in 1925, Carnegie contributed frequently to publication costs of the BSSA.


Following the 21 January 1920 Inglewood earthquake there was an attempt to form a “Southwest Section” of the Society. In August 1920 at the Southern California Chapter meeting of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, Ralph Arnold, a consulting geologist and engineer (and a member of SSA), appointed a committee of ten with William Mulholland, Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, as chairman to organize a local chapter. A meeting was held at the home of Homer Laughlin, Jr., a prominent engineer and a member of SSA. Mulholland was elected President, Frank Rolph and Ralph Arnold Vice-Presidents, and Laughlin Secretary-Treasurer. The section seems to have died soon thereafter as there is no further reference to it in the minutes of the parent Society. Arnold’s interest in seismology continued as a member of the Carnegie Institution’s Committee on Seismology discussed above.

In December 1925, preliminary steps to form an Eastern Section were begun at the AAAS meeting in Kansas City. The need for such a section arose from the difficulty of Eastern scientists making the long trip to the west coast where Society meetings were usually held. The move to start an Eastern Section was initiated by Nicholas H. Heck, Chief of the Division of Terrestrial Magnetism and Seismology of the CGS, James B. Macelwane of St. Louis University, and Ernest A. Hodgson of the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, Canada (BSSA 16, p. 150).

The first meeting was held at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. on 1 May 1926. Macelwane was the first Chairman, Hodgson Vice-Chairman, and Heck Secretary-Treasurer. The first project of the Eastern Section, aside from an annual meeting, was publication of the Bibliography of Seismology, started in 1927. Initially it was widely distributed in mimeographed form by the Dominion Observatory and later reprinted in BSSA (17, pp. 149–182; 18, pp. 16–63, 110– 125; 19, pp. 214–255, 267–282) (Hodgson, 1986). Publication was taken over by the Dominion Observatory from 1929–1965, after which the International Seismological Centre in Great Britain assumed this task.

The Eastern Section has met annually (Table 2), usually on a university campus, except in 1942, 1943, and 1945 (during World War II) and in 1972, when no regular meeting was held for reasons discussed below. From 1926 to 1960 the Eastern Section met in the spring as did the main Society, but beginning in 1961 the Eastern Section moved its meetings to the fall.

For many years the Eastern Section operated virtually independently of the parent society, collecting its own dues and planning its meetings without consulting the parent society. Failure to communicate effectively led to a minor crisis in 1971. The SSA Board decided to move the national annual meeting to the fall (BSSA 61, p. 803) to distance it from the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which has an active seismology section. This decision upset the Eastern Section officers, who felt it necessary to move their meeting to the spring. As a result, the Eastern Section held no regular meeting in 1972, although a symposium on the “capabilities of eastern U. S. institutions to respond to the occurrence of a large earthquake in their region” was held at Ithaca, New York about the time that the annual meeting would normally have been held (Earthquake Notes 43(4), pp. 22–24). This led to more mutual consultation, and the main Society meetings have continued to be held in the spring ever since. The conflict in meeting times with the American Geophysical Union has been further complicated by the Union’s adding an annual western meeting in San Francisco in December. Considering that the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (henceforth EERI) meets annually in late winter and the Incorporated Research Institutions in Seismology (IRIS) in early summer, there are now six U.S. meetings annually at which seismological papers are presented. In 1982 arrangements were made to collect Section dues along with the parent Society dues (rather than separately as had been done previously), and the Eastern Section has accepted its role as a subsection of the parent society.

The Eastern Section began publishing Earthquake Notes in July 1929. Initially it consisted of short notes, often reports of earthquakes provided by members, and news of various sorts (deaths, new observatories, committee reports). Two to four issues appeared annually. The Society began publishing abstracts of its annual meetings in Earthquake Notes in 1978.

There is no formal record of where Earthquake Notes was originally published. I think that they were mimeographed and sent out with the help of the CGS in Washington, D.C. Beginning in 1966 Earthquake Notes was printed by Braun and Braunsfield, Inc. of Ann Arbor, Michigan and for the first time included advertising (Sprengnether Instrument Co. of St. Louis, Missouri). The printer changed frequently after that.

The Byerly Years (1930–1956)

The year 1930 was a milestone for SSA. Management shifted from Stanford University to Berkeley faculty. (President Louderback and Secretary Byerly were both professors at Berkeley.) Membership had grown rapidly following the 1920 Inglewood and 1925 Santa Barbara, California earthquakes, had stabilized at around 800 by 1930, then dropped by several hundred over the next three years (Figure 3). Income had peaked in 1925, but year-end balances were falling by 1930 (Figure 1). This was the start of the Great Depression. This was also the year that Beno Gutenberg joined the Seismology Laboratory at Caltech, broadening its focus from southern California earthquakes to the world and using seismic data to delineate the structure of the Earth’s interior.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Membership.

The SSA Constitution was revised in 1930, removing the requirement that the Secretary and Treasurer be members of the Board of Directors. It was felt by some that too much power and responsibility were vested in one man (Townley) holding the offices of Secretary, Treasurer, and Editor. Corporate membership was established in 1930. The constitutional change formalized the existence of an Executive Committee of three persons consisting of the President, the Secretary, and a third person. Initially the third person was sometimes the First Vice-president, sometimes some other member of the Board. (In 1992 another constitutional change established that the third member be the then lone Vice-President.)

Perry Byerly was appointed Secretary in 1930, a position he held for 27 years. Although not a Board member the first year he served, he was elected to the Board every year thereafter during his terms as Secretary. Secretaries and Treasurers were frequently but, especially in recent years, have not always been Board members.

In 1935 George D. Louderback replaced Townley as Editor of BSSA. Printing was transferred to the University of California Press. Publication dates were changed in 1933 to January, April, July, and October. The Geological Society of America (GSA) began a series of annual grants in support of publication costs. SSA began holding its annual meetings jointly with the Cordilleran Section of GSA, and the abstracts of SSA papers were published in the Proceedings of GSA.

Townley had been paid a small stipend as Editor, but when Louderback took over, this item disappeared from the budget. Officers other than the Editor have always served without compensation.

During Byerly’s tenure as Secretary, the custom developed of holding Board meetings only once per year, and starting in 1946 they were usually held in association with the annual meeting of the Society. (In the early days of the Society, Board meetings were held earlier in the year than the annual meetings, and there sometimes was more than one Board meeting). Since 1949, directors’ meetings have normally consisted of two parts: first the retiring Board meets, approving the annual election results and receiving reports, then the new Board meets immediately afterward. Because the directors meet only once per year, much of the business of the Society, such as appointing committees and representatives to other bodies, is conducted by the Executive Committee.

The Byerly years were a time of stable income (Figure 1) and a gradual recovery of membership and subscribers after the shock of the Great Depression (Figure 3). Journal pages averaged around 300 per year (Figure 4), and the number of papers presented at the annual meetings gradually grew, filling two to four half-day sessions (Figure 2). The year 1957 was the end of an era for the Society. Byerly ended his service by serving as President in 1957–1958. He was not the only Berkeley professor to end his service in that year. George D. Louderback, one of the thirteen men who met in 1906 to start the Society, died in 1957. He was Secretary of the Society from 1906–1911, President in 1914–1915 and 1929–1935, and Editor of BSSA from 1935 until he died.

The Great Expansion (1957–1975)

The pace of activity in seismology greatly accelerated around 1957 due to several events. The first of these was the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), during which scientists all over the world made a special effort to study physical processes modifying the Earth. The second was the agreement in 1958 between the Soviet Union and the Western powers that there should be a ban on underground testing of nuclear weapons. The principal means of monitoring this ban was to watch for seismic waves radiated from a clandestine nuclear explosion. To make this work, it was necessary to distinguish between the seismic waves from an explosion and an earthquake. To improve U.S. capacity in this area, the U.S. government established a well funded program, managed by the Air Force (VELA UNIFORM), that gave grants to researchers working on detection and related seismic problems and provided modern seismic equipment to 120 observatories worldwide (Bates et al., 1982). One result of this influx of money was to entice hundreds of scientists into seismological careers.

The effects of this were quickly apparent in SSA affairs. Between 1957 and 1975 membership more than doubled (Figure 3), the number of papers presented annually at meetings trebled (Figure 2), and BSSA annual pages went from around 300 to 2,000 (Figure 4). In 1961 printing of BSSA was shifted to Waverly Press in Baltimore, and in 1963 the number of issues was increased from four to six annually.

Figure 4

Figure 4. BSSA annual pages.

Page charges were initiated in 1957, and SSA finances have been relatively stable since then. SSA was assisted occasionally before then by grants from a variety of organizations to support individual papers, e.g., the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the Carnegie Foundation. Grants have been received to support special issues from the National Science Foundation, the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. In 1963 William M. Adams donated to SSA the royalties from his book Earthquakes: An Introduction to Observational Seismology to defray publication costs in connection with papers dealing with direct exploration of the Earth and other planets.

As its size increased, the Society loosened its ties to the Geological Society of America. In 1965 it met in St. Louis, Missouri, and thereafter with increasing frequency independently of GSA. GSA’s contribution to the publication costs of BSSA terminated in 1965. The Society published the abstracts of the 1965 meeting in Earthquake Notes, a practice which became standard whenever SSA met independently of GSA.

SSA had no formal headquarters for many years. Records were kept by the secretaries. SSA established its own office in September 1964 (BSSA 55, p. 668). The first full-time employee was hired at this time. By 1999 there were three full-time employees plus part-time help as needed. Some work is contracted out to consultants. SSA’s official address was moved from San Francisco to Berkeley in 1966.

Society membership has included engineers from the start, and initially many papers on engineering seismology were published in BSSA. As engineering seismology expanded, there were complaints that BSSA gave too great emphasis to the geological side of seismology. This led to the founding of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) in 1949. Initially membership in EERI was by invitation only, but in 1970 it was opened to qualified interested persons and EERI became a professional society. Starting in 1973 EERI shared office space and staff with SSA, first in Oakland, then, starting in 1977, in Berkeley. EERI began publishing its own journal, Earthquake Spectra, in 1985. The two societies separated in January 1988, at which time SSA moved to its present location in El Cerrito, California.

SSA officers changed more frequently in this period than previously (Table 1), and Board meetings were regularly attended by nearly all members. The Secretary and the Editor continued to carry the main responsibilities for managing the Society. After years of struggle, the year-end balance finally approached annual expenditures, providing a sense of financial security (Figure 1). A revised constitution adopted in 1963 provided that four directors be elected each year for a three-year term and that there be only one vice-president instead of the previous three.

The Society has a complex history of affiliation with the American Geologic Institute (AGI). It originally joined AGI at the time of AGI’s formation in 1947. In 1958 a committee was appointed “to criticize the American Geologic Institute” (BSSA 48, p. 297). When AGI was reorganized in 1962, the Society elected first to be an associate-member society rather than a full member. In 1967, it officially withdrew from AGI in spite of a recommendation by its Board that associate membership be continued. It was argued that virtually all SSA members interested in affiliation with AGI were also members of other affiliated societies. A committee was appointed to report on whether SSA should rejoin AGI, and in 1969 SSA applied for and was granted full membership again.

The Modern Era (1975–2000)

A new constitution and bylaws were adopted in 1975 (BSSA 65, pp. 799–804). They provided for the award of the Society Medal in recognition of “outstanding contributions in Seismology and Earthquake Engineering” (Table 3). Perry Byerly was the first recipient. SSA has for many years awarded honorary membership to persons “distinguished for their attainments in seismology” (Table 4). The category of student membership was also established.

In 1990 the Eastern Section established the JSA Award “to honor an observational seismologist” (Table 5). The award was endowed by the Jesuit Seismological Association. The first award was made to Gilbert A. Bollinger in 1994. The Eastern Section began a “best student paper” award in 1982, and it also makes travel grants to students presenting papers at its annual Fall meeting.

SSA meetings had grown to the point where henceforth it preferred usually to meet independently rather than with the Cordilleran Section of the GSA. This resulted in the meetings often being away from the west coast of the U.S., e.g., Edmonton, Alberta in 1976, Golden, Colorado in 1979, Charleston, South Carolina in 1986, and México in 1993 (Table 2). In 1988, SSA met in Honolulu, Hawaii jointly with the Seismological Society of Japan.

Some of the early meetings had been very small: Only two papers were presented in 1912, three in 1914, and two in 1919. Since then, the number of papers has grown steadily from a single session to multiple sessions on successive days (Figure 2). There were twelve sessions over three days in 1978 (181 papers). In that year the Board voted to limit the number of papers to one per speaker and to enforce strictly the time allowed per paper. Poster sessions were established in 1990.

Membership and BSSA pages have been remarkably stable during the modern era, but the number of papers presented at the annual meeting and annual SSA expenses have grown (Figures 2–4). The stability of BSSA pages is deceptive, however, because page size was increased from 17 × 25 cm to 21 × 28 cm in 1994. The Board of three editors was replaced in 1969 by an Editor and two associate editors, the number of whom had grown to nineteen in 2000. Page size in Earthquake Notes was increased similarly in 1985. Back issues of BSSA have been available on microfilm and microfiche since 1979.

SSA has sponsored many symposia jointly with other organizations. Beginning in 1988, the Society has made available to its members personal-computer software obtained from the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior. The Society has also occasionally published brochures for special purposes, such as “Seismology: Resources for Teachers” in 1983. An Internet Web site was launched in 1995.

The Board felt that the Society should take some initiative in stimulating public interest in seismological problems. One result was the sponsorship in 1991 of a special “Forum on Future Earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

The biggest change in this period has been the reorganization of Earthquake Notes into Seismological Research Letters (henceforth abbreviated SRL) in 1987. At first SRL was merely an enlarged version of Earthquake Notes, but the directors of the parent Society were interested in SRL from the start and used it to publish the programs and minutes of its meetings. Starting in 1995, SSA took over primary responsibility for SRL, which was now expanded to contain separate sections for general articles of a less research-oriented nature than BSSA articles, a section for research articles particularly related to eastern North American seismology, an editorial section, letters to the editor, news and notes, book reviews, a meeting calendar, and membership information. A microfiche of “Preliminary Determinations of Epicenters” was included attached to the back page from 1987 until 1994. This was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. Edwards Brothers of Ann Arbor, Michigan was chosen as printer in 1995. These great changes were accomplished after extensive and very amiable consultation in planning by the officers of the Society and the Eastern Section.

In 1992, the Constitution was again revised, providing that the President and Vice-President not necessarily be elected from members of the Board of Directors (although each has usually served on the Board in the immediate past). It provided that the President be elected in alternate years for a two-year term. Other officers were elected or reelected annually, except that in 1996 the term of the Vice-President was changed to two years.

Secretaries and treasurers were re-elected as long as they were willing to serve. SSA has had only nine secretaries and ten treasurers (Table 1). Although the Board of Directors adopted a policy of a seven-year limit on the tenure of secretaries and treasurers in 1983, this has not been enforced.

In 1992 the Board began a program of increased formal communication with the U.S. federal government regarding the latter’s seismological programs. It joined a Coalition of Associations in Support of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Act and appointed a representative to the AGI Committee on Government Affairs. Officers of SSA have appeared frequently before government committees and have written letters to congressmen regarding legislation of interest. A Government Relations Committee was appointed in 1995. A federal liaison was engaged to “begin the process of establishing and maintaining a close working relationship throughout the Federal Government” (SRL 68, p. 965). In 1998 the Board approved a “memorandum of partnership” with the Western States Seismic Policy Council.


The author appreciates the help of Andrew A. Nyblade and Kevin P. Furlong, who suggested revisions of earlier drafts of this paper.


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