search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

The Early Work for Earthquake Research in California

by Thomas J. Maher
Maher was a captain of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and inspector-in-charge of the Survey's San Francisco field station from 1928 to 1936. He retired in 1946, and died in June 1964.

The great San Francisco earthquake of Apr. 18, 1906, resulted in a temporary impetus in earthquake investigation. However, after the excitement had died down, interest in research on earthquakes declined, partly because of activity by pressure groups who considered that the dissemination of information about earthquakes was detrimental to business. Prominent among those who objected to this approach by the pressure groups was J. B. Levison, who headed a reputable insurance company [Fireman's Fund]. Through his efforts, his company had met every commitment resulting from earthquake damage while many other companies had failed to do so. He maintained that censorship or attempts to suppress unfavorable information would serve only to magnify the damage and to hurt the community. More than 20 years later Mr. Levison was to take a leading part in a citizens group whose efforts would result in the Federal Government undertaking seismological investigations in the State.

Interest in earthquake investigation revived somewhat as a result of the Santa Barbara earthquake of June 29, 1925. Meanwhile, on January 31 of the same year, the President of the United States had approved an Act of Congress authorizing the Coast and Geodetic Survey "to make investigations and reports on seismology, including investigations as have heretofore been performed by the Weather Bureau." However, the legislation did not specifically provide for earthquake investigations in California.

Following the Santa Barbara earthquake, the California Bankers Association created an earthquake insurance committee, with Paul Pflueger as chairman, and the insurance companies coped with the problem of insuring the public against earthquake losses. The problem was discussed by Bailey Willis in an address before the National Board of Fire Underwriters in May 1926 in New York, and round-table discussions on the construction aspects of the problem were held at the Engineers Club in San Francisco. On one occasion Henry Dewell remarked that the only definite information concerning earthquake-resistant structures was in Japanese, and that he hoped to have an English translation from the manuscript.

In 1929 Lonny Folansbee, a business associate of J. B. Levison, remarked at luncheon in the Family Club at San Francisco that nothing much was being done in earthquake investigations. I informed him that that was the work of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Lonny, being the son-in-law of my first commanding officer, felt free to express himself. "Well," he said, "why aren't you doing something? No funds? Come over to Jake Levison's office at 2:30 tomorrow."

I saw Levison and explained the situation to him; then I wrote to Rear Adm. Raymond S. Patton, Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, who came to San Francisco shortly thereafter and had lunch with Levison at the Bohemian Club, Henry Dewell then made arrangements for a meeting of area engineers, scientists, and businessmen that would be attended by Admiral Patton. Leland Cutler, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, insisted that the meeting be held under the auspices of that organization, as the subject was one that affected not only engineers, geologists, and seismologists [ Text missing] and one at Los Angeles, and records were obtained from all three instruments. A. K. Ludy, in charge of the magnetic station at Tucson, Ariz., was placed temporarily in charge of field operations, and after the first shock at Long Beach he proceeded there by truck with additional instruments. In Long Beach he met Professor Martel and they investigated the area and made arrangement for installations in the Breakers Hotel. Ludy, with R. S. McLean who was one of Martel's best students, stood watch over an instrument that was, I believe, on the 12th floor of the hotel.

Later, it was decided to place instruments in various buildings, but difficulty was experienced because owners and operators felt that tenants might assume that there was some doubt concerning their safety. Will Morrish, president of the Bank of America, San Jose, Calif., was one of the first to permit installations. W. H. Kirkbride, chief engineer of the Southern Pacific Railroad, became very much interested, and instruments were placed in his building. When he heard that some instruments had not yet been placed owing to the reticence of property owners, he requested that these be installed in the Southern Pacific Building because he wanted to get all information possible as to the movements of the building during an earthquake. His request was not fulfilled, as there was a sudden demand for installations when word was passed that the Southern Pacific wanted the instruments.

Now rapid progress was made. Four tiltmeters were installed on the grounds of the University of California, and, since considerable damage had been caused by collapsing water tanks, vibration tests were made on a number of such structures, and Harold Engle made a thorough study of the subject. Similar tests were made in many buildings, and in some of these tests the motion of small amplitudes was produced by an unbalanced fly-wheel. Prof. Lydik Jacobsen of Stanford University obtained interesting and informative results from testing building models that were supported on a shaking table, and Professor Derleth of the University of California studied the obtained data for application to bridge design.

A questionnaire was designed to obtain answers to a number of questions covering the visible effects of earthquakes. Issued in the form of postal cards, the questionnaires were placed in the hands of many people in California, Arizona, Nevada, and adjoining States. The information obtained was of value in determining the limits of the area in which the shock was felt and in defining zones of different damage areas.

These developments in California assisted in the establishment of a coordinated program of earthquake investigation.

In: Earthquake Investigations in the Western United States 1931-1964.
Edited by Dean S. Carder. [Washington] U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Coast and Geodetic Survey; [for sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1965].
Series title: Publication (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey) ; 41-2.

Captain Maher continued to plead, during the 1930s, for research monies to study earthquakes and seismic engineering. The "Examiner" published a small, but important, article in 1935 about the need for funding:

A plea for some philanthropist to make an endowment to further the study of earthquakes at some California institution of higher learning is contained in the current issue of the California Journal of Development, publication of the State Chamber of Commerce.

The article is by Thomas J. Maher, in charge of the San Francisco field office of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey.

The article points out that the University of California, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology are handicapped by the lack of funds.

There is a great need for study as to what type of buildings can best withstand temblors, writes Maher. He points out that the "minor" shock of 1933 in the Long Beach area wrought more than $40,000,000 damage, principally because buildings there had been erected without the knowledge that would have prevented such destruction.

The San Francisco Examiner
November 26, 1935
Return to top of page