John Milne

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John Milne

Although little known today in his native Britain, scientist and inventor John Milne (1850-1913) arguably contributed more than any other single individual to the understanding and remote detection of earthquakes.

“Earthquake Milne,” as he was sometimes known, invented one of the first modern seismographs and put in place the beginnings of the worldwide network of earthquake measuring stations that exists today. It is noteworthy that many of his pioneering discoveries were accomplished while he was living and working in Japan, a country where awareness of earthquakes was and remains more immediate and urgent than in Milne's homeland. Milne also made important contributions to Western scholarship on Japan during his nearly two decades of residence in that country. He had a colorful life, wrote several books (including two textbooks on seismology that were used for decades), and generally deserves more attention than he has been accorded in the Englishspeaking world.

Financed Trip with Pub Appearances

John Milne was born on December 30, 1850, in Liverpool, England, but grew up in Rochdale, near Manchester. He was the only child of John Milne Sr. and Emma Twycross. A talented student from the start, he enrolled at Liverpool Collegiate Institute when he was 13 and won a series of academic prizes there. One of them carried a cash award that Milne used to take a trip around northwest England's Lake District. He extended the journey all the way to Ireland essentially on foot, living on apples that he filched from orchards along the way and making extra money by entertaining patrons at roadside pubs by playing the piano.

When Milne was 17 he moved to London and resumed his education, entering King's College and taking a diverse curriculum that included mathematics, mechanics, theology, geology, chemistry, geometrical drawing and, most important, surveying and mineralogy. Interested in a career as a mining engineer, he enrolled at the Royal School of Mines in London and also studied mining further in Freiburg, Germany. In his early twenties Milne participated as a field geologist in mining expeditions in Europe, Iceland, the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and the Sinai region in the Middle East. With this wide experience under his belt by 1875, Milne was offered a job still farther away: the Japanese government in Tokyo had just formed a new public works department and offered Milne the position of consulting engineer, which he accepted. Later he became professor of geology and mining at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo.

Rather than sailing for Japan, Milne traveled overland through Scandinavia, Russia, Central Asia (where part of the journey involved travel on camelback), and China, a grueling journey he summarized in his 1879 book Across Europe and Asia. Reportedly Milne insisted on the land journey because he suffered from seasickness. On Milne's first night in Japan he experienced the first of the many earthquakes that would menace the island nation, which is located in the active earthquake zone that surrounds the Pacific Ocean.

The scientific understanding of earthquakes was still in its infancy in the 1870s. Supernatural explanations had given way to the hypothesis that earthquakes were somehow connected to volcanic eruptions. The interest of European scientists in earthquakes had been heightened by a group of major quakes that struck England and Portugal in the 1750s, and measurements of earthquake intensity had been made for more than a century. But few researchers had analyzed the collected data systematically. Early in his career in Japan, Milne made close observations of Japanese volcanoes and correctly concluded, according to the Web site of the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Saint Louis University that “the majority of earthquakes which we experience do not come from volcanoes nor do they seem to have any direct connection with them.”

Investigated Aboriginal Japanese

Beyond his purely scientific pursuits, Milne took a keen interest in his new home and made several important contributions to the study of Japanese prehistory and to the description of Japan's aboriginal inhabitants, the Ainu. He traveled to Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, to make his ethnological observations, and many of his guesses about the movements of peoples in early Japan were proven correct by artifacts recovered later during anthropological expeditions.

A major earthquake that struck the Yokohama area in 1880 focused Milne's energies on seismology. That year he and two other British scientists in Japan, James Alfred Ewing and Thomas Gray, devoted their efforts to seismology research. They founded the Seismological Society of Japan, which was the first scientific seismology organization anywhere in the world; Milne was asked to be the group's leader but chose to edit and to contribute articles to its journal instead. The society also funded Milne's research. Working again with Ewing and Gray, Milne quickly perfected the horizontal pendulum seismograph, one of the first modern precision instruments for the measurement of the duration and intensity of earthquakes. It was not the first seismograph—earthquake-measuring instruments were known in ancient China—but modern seismographs trace their ancestries ultimately to Milne's instrument. The horizontal pendulum seismograph enabled Milne to distinguish primary and secondary waves (“P” and “S” waves) in the vibrations resulting from motion along a fault line; the two waves produced different patterns on Milne's seismograph, and interpretations of those patterns allowed scientists to determine exactly where a quake's epicenter was located.

Living through and observing another major Japanese quake, the Mino-Owari earthquake of 1891, Milne offered the correct hypothesis that earthquakes were caused by the release of energy along fault lines in the Earth's crust. He published several major books about earthquakes in the 1890s, including one that documented the effects of the 1891 quake in photographs. His summaries of his Japanese earthquake observations were published in the books Earthquakes and Other Earth Movements (1898) and Seismology; these remained standard texts in the field of seismology for many years. For his efforts in search of an understanding of earthquakes in Japan, Milne was given the Order of the Rising Sun award by the Japanese emperor; he was one of very few foreigners ever to receive that honor. Milne married Toné Horikawa, a Japanese geologist. They solemnized their marriage in two separate ceremonies, one Japanese and one recognized under British law.

After Milne's home, laboratory, and books were destroyed in an 1895 fire, he decided to return to Britain. His wife and an assistant, Shinobu Hirota (known as Snowy), accompanied him to the Isle of Wight off England's southern coast, where they moved into an old estate called Shide Hill House and renovated its barn into a seismological laboratory. Milne oversaw the pouring of a precision-specified concrete floor before installing his array of instrumentation. Shide Hill House attracted scientists and researchers from around the world for the rest of Milne's life. The location had an additional attraction for Milne: the nearby Carisbrooke Castle owned another seismograph, and by 1900 Milne had added several more of his own, creating in effect the world's first major seismographic research center. Milne formed a new British Seismological Investigation Committee, which communicated with other seismographic stations around the world to form a global network that in vastly refined and expanded form still exists today. Milne's network included observation stations in Russian, the United States, Canada, and later Antarctica.

Burned Gap in Mustache

Milne's earthquake observatory occasioned wonderment among residents of the still rural Isle of Wight. Milne, with a distinctive mustache featuring a gap burned by decades of chain-smoked cigarettes, could be a startling figure, and the strange illumination caused by his various nighttime experiments led to the local belief that his observatory was haunted. Milne's household consisted of Milne, his wife, Hirota, an astronomer named Herbert Turner, a cook, and a housemaid. He had no children.

Prior to his death, Milne collaborated with John Johnson Shaw on another important advance in seismograph technology known as the Milne-Shaw Seismograph. Advances in electronic technology eventually superseded the designs of Milne's instruments, but the basic look of Milne's seismograph, with its weighted base and recording needles sweeping across paper and inscribing wave forms, persisted for decades. Milne served as secretary of the seismological committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in the 1910s. He died from kidney disease on July 31, 1913. After his death, what remained of his laboratory became the property of Oxford University. Surprisingly little known in Britain today, he is venerated in Japan as a scientific pioneer.


Herbert-Gustar, Leslie, and Patrick A. Nott, Earthquake Milne and the Isle of Wight, Vectis, 1974.

Herbert-Gustar, Leslie, and Patrick A. Nott, John Milne: Father of Modern Seismology, 1980.

Kabrna, Paul, John Milne: The Man Who Mapped the Shaking Earth, Craven & Pendle Geological Society, 2007.


“Earthquake Milne: 1850-1913,” Isle of Wight Rock Archives, (February 9, 2008).

“Inventor of the Week: John Milne,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (February 9, 2008).

“John Milne (1850-1913),” Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Saint Louis University, (February 9, 2008).

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(b. Liverpool, England, 30 December 1850; d. Shide, Isle of Wight, England, 31 July 1913)


The son of John Milne and Emma Twycross, Milne was educated at Liverpool and King’s College, London, and later studied geology and mineralogy at the Royal School of Mines. He was an ardent and adventurous traveler, starting, as a schoolboy and without parental leave, with a dangerous exploration of the Vatnajökull in Iceland. After early experience as a mining engineer in Great Britain and Germany he spent two years investigating the mineral resources of Newfoundland and Labrador, and later wrote geological notes on his observations in Egypt, Arabia, and Siberia. He visited Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, where he made a large collection of skeletons of the great auk. In 1874 he served as geologist in an expedition that sought to fix the site of Mt. Sinai.

In 1875 Milne was appointed professor of geology and mining at the Imperial College of Engineering, Tokyo. The journey to Japan took eleven months, part of it crossing Mongolia by camel in sulvero weather. In Japan he turned to the study of earthquakes, the field in which he became world famous. He married Tone Noritsune, daughter of Horikawa Noritsune, the high priest of Hakodate. Milne retired from Japan in 1895 and went with his wife to Shide, on the Isle of Wight, where he continued in active seisniological work until his death after a short illness in 1913. Throughout his work at Shide he was assisted by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which had established a seismological committee and appointed Milne its secretary. The work was a labor of love in which he had the devoted services of a Japanese assistant, Shinobu Hirota; many of the expenses were defrayed by Milne himself. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1887 and was awarded the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1894 and a Royal Medal in 1908. The emperor of Japan conferred upon him the Order of the Rising Sun.

Milne was the most noted of a group of British scientists in Japan who pioneered modern seismology. An earthquake at Yokohama on 22 February 1880 led them, on Milne’s initiative, to form with their Japanese colleagues the Seismological Society of Japan, the first organization devoted exclusively to the study of earthquakes and volcanoes. Its work was crucial at a time when seismology was developing from a qualitative science, resting largely on geological observations and concerned with such matters as cataloging earthquake effects, into a science in which precise physical measurements are brought to bear. By 1892 Milne, in association with his colleagues J. A. Ewing and T. Gray, had developed a seismograph for recording horizontal components of the ground motion. It was reliable, compact, and simple enough to be installed on a worldwide basis and to provide a global coverage of ground movements due to large earthquakes. From that date the science of seismology as a branch of geophysics advanced apace, and seismological data began to be applied to unraveling the internal structure of the earth.

Milne’s researches touched on nearly all aspects of seismology. From his Tokyo records he deduced that in large earthquakes the ground accelerations can be comparable with the vertical acceleration of gravity. He showed that earthquake accelerations are in general greater—and therefore more dangerous—on soft ground than on hard rock. He initiated experiments to study properties of earthquake waves by generating artificial shocks by explosives and other means and by examining records of the ensuing ground motions. In this way he obtained records showing groups of waves corresponding to the P and S (primary and secondary) waves of modern seismology. He devised methods of locating distant earthquake sources from his records and evolved early travel-time curves of earthquake waves in terms of the distances from the source. He compiled important earthquake catalogs, including one covering the seismic history of Japan from 295 B.C. and another on destructive world earthquakes. (It is estimated that he examined about one hundred thousand documents in the course of this work.)

Starting in 1881, Milne produced the seismological General Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Subsequently, on the Isle of Wight, he produced the “Shide circulars,” which summarized the data gathered by a worldwide network of seismological stations set up by Milne and using his instruments. The Shide circulars were the forerunners of the International Seismological Summary, which, after Milne’s death, became the basic source of instrument-gathered data on earthquakes. With its recent successor, the Bulletin of the International Seismological Center, it has long been centrally important in world research on earthquakes.

Milne’s success was due to the combination of scientific brilliance and adaptability with a genial disposition and capacity to interest others in his enthusiasms. He was modest, notably hospitable, gifted with a sense of humor, and generous to others in his scientific and pecuniary help.


I. Original Works. Milne was a prolific writer who contributed nearly 2,000 pages (about two-thirds of the entire content) of the Transactions and Journal of the Seismological Society of Japan during his editorship (1880–1895). He also published papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Geological Magazine, and Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. He wrote Earthquakes and Other Earth Movements (London, 1886); two eds. of a supp. volume, Seismology, appeared in 1898 and 1908. Among his noted publications are the Shide circulars and A Catalogue of Destructive Earthquakes, A.D. 7 to A.D. 1899 (London, 1912), published by the British Association.

II. Secondary Literature. A list of Milne’s publications is given by H. Woodward, in Geological Magazine, 9 (Aug. 1912), 337–346. For details of Milne’s life, see J.W.J., “Prof. John Milne, F.R.S.,” in Nature, 91 (Aug. 1913), 587–588; J.P., “John Milne, 1850–1913,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 84A (Mar. 1914), xxii–xxv; 91 (Aug. 1913), 587–588; and C. Davison, The Founders of Seismology (Cambridge, 1927), ch. 10. Milne’s Earthquakes and Other Earth Movements was revised by A. W. Lee (Philadelphia, 1939). For an account of Milne’s work at Shide, see Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, “John Milne, Seismologist,” in Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 2 , no. 1 (Mar. 1912), 2–7.

K. E. Bullen

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Milne, John (1850–1913) A British mining engineer who became professor of geology and mining in Tokyo. Milne became interested in earthquakes, developing and testing seismographs, and recording waves produced by explosions. He was the first to show that distant earthquakes could be recorded. He also made a study of earthquake-proof buildings.