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  • A look at some of the historical aspects of earthquakes, find out how our understanding of what causes earthquakes has changed.

    1705 – A discovery by Robert Hooke

    Robert Hooke realised that earthquakes are connected to land movements.

    1755 – Modern studies begin

    A huge earthquake and tsunami in Portugal killed over 70,000 people. This marked the start of modern earthquake studies, as people began to collect data to help understand the events.

    1840 – Electromagnetic seismograph invented

    Luigi Palmieri invented the first accurate electromagnetic seismograph, which could detect earthquakes not felt by humans.

    1850 – Seismic waves discovered

    Robert Mallet realised that most earthquake damage is due to moving waves caused by a sudden land movement, named seismic waves.

    1855 – Layer of rocks discovery

    John Pratt and George Airy suggested that surface rocks float on a layer of denser rock.

    1872 -–Fault lines proposition

    Grove Gilbert figured out that earthquakes are centred around fault lines.

    1889 – Seismometer detection

    For the first time, a seismometer (in Germany) detected an earthquake on the other side of the Earth (in Japan).

    1897 – P-waves and S-waves

    Richard Oldham realised that there were at least two types of seismic waves that travelled at different speeds. We know these now as P-waves and S-waves.

    1904 – Atomic reactions

    Ernest Rutherford claimed that the Earth is heated by atomic reactions.

    1906 – New thinking about fault lines

    After the most destructive earthquake in American history at San Francisco, Harry Reid suggested that earthquakes are the result of stresses built up along faults.

    1909 – Probing inside the Earth

    Andrija Mohorovicic realised that you could use seismic waves to probe the hidden Earth.

    1912 – Continental drift

    Alfred Wegener put forward the idea of continental drift. His theory was that the continents were once joined to form a giant supercontinent that he called Pangaea.

    1914 – Earth's core estimated 7,000km

    Beno Gutenberg used seismic waves to estimate the diameter of the Earth’s core as 7,000 kilometres – a size that is still thought to be correct.

    1921 – Colliding supercontinents

    Alexander du Toit suggested that mountains are formed by colliding continents. He also suggested that Pangaea divided into two supercontinents. He called the northern supercontinent Laurasia and the southern one Gondwana.

    1930 – Convection and continental drift

    Harry Hess proposed convection currents in the mantle as a mechanism for continental drift.

    1931 – How much damage?

    Guiseppe Mercalli created the Modified Mercalli Scale to measure earthquake damage, based on a scale originally made in 1902.

    1935 – Measuring magnitude

    Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg developed a new magnitude scale for earthquakes, now known as the Richter Scale.

    1936 – P-waves measure inner core

    Inge Lehmann used data from P-waves to suggest the existence of an inner core to the Earth.

    1961 – Monitoring earthquakes worldwide

    A worldwide earthquake monitoring system was set up. Several systems now exist, including the Global Seismographic Network. They contribute to the understanding of plate tectonics and other Earth processes.

    Late 1960s – Plate tectonics

    The realisation that ocean floors behave differently to continents led to the theory of plate tectonics.

    1995 – Discovering slow slips

    First slow slip events noticed in Japan and Canada. These are helping to explain plate movement and stress build-up in subduction zones.

    1996 – Inner core movement

    Xiaodong Song and Paul Richards, using P-waves, discovered that the solid inner core rotates freely within the fluid outer core and at a different speed to the rest of the Earth.

    2002 – New Zealand’s slow slip

    First slow slip events recorded in New Zealand.

    2016 – Rethinking hazards in plate boundary zones

    Kaikoura's 7.9 earthquake was so complex and unusual that it is likely to change conventional seismic hazard models.

    Related content

    Frank Evison was one of New Zealand’s esteemed scientists who was a pioneer in the field of earthquake prediction. During his lifetime, our understanding of earthquakes improved dramatically. Frank believed passionately that, as a scientist, he had a duty to society, and his dedication to producing a reliable method of earthquake forecasting continued until his death in 2005. See his life, work and how it changed scientific thinking in our heritage scientist profile and interactive timeline.

      Published 21 July 2007, Updated 19 December 2016 Referencing Hub articles
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