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"Island innovator saves thousands of lives in recent earthquake..."
Notes from a talk given to the Isle of Wight Family History Society on 14th May 2011 by Patrick Nott.
The disaster a few months ago at the Japanese Fukushima Nuclear Plant was serious enough, but without the pioneering work of an almost forgotten Isle of Wight scientist and engineer it would certainly have been cataclysmic. John Milne, the Father of Modern Seismology, who lived and worked at Shide Hill House, Newport from 1895 until his death in 1913, was instrumental in not only establishing serious scientific study of earthquakes but also in producing the first codes of practice for civil engineers building in seismic regions.
Early life and travels
Born in the Mount Vernon district of Liverpool into a family trading in wool, he spent the early years of his life at Drake Street in Rochdale. Attended a dame school there he later entered the Liverpool Collegiate School. His undergraduate years were spent at King’s College, London. He continued his training as a geologist at the then new London Royal School of Mines, at Freiburg in Saxony and at Camborne in Cornwall. By now his home was at Richmond, Surrey.
Milne was from his early years a great traveller. He went during a holiday to Ireland and with a friend canoed along the canals of Southern England. In his undergraduate years he sailed to Iceland and explored the Vatna Jokul glacier. In 1871 that must have been quite an adventure.
Two years later Cyrus Field employed him on a survey for minerals in Newfoundland. John Milne took this opportunity to study the extinct Great Auk and publish a paper. It was one of the many hundred of academic papers and articles he was to write during his life. By the age of 23 he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Geological Society of London. That same year he accompanied Charles Beke as artist and geologist on his expedition to discover the ‘true’ Mount Sinai.
Over in Japan
By 1876, following the Meiji restoration, the Japanese were scouring Europe and America for outstanding lecturers and teachers to drive the modernisation of their country, it resulted in John Milne being appointed lecturer in geology and mining at the new Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. Not enjoying sea travel and grasping the opportunity to investigate the geology and cultures of then seldom visited regions he decided to make the mammoth journey overland via Russia, Mongolia and China to Japan. Much of his route followed what was to be that of the Trans-Siberian Railway during what was a hard winter. One his first night in Japan he experienced his first earthquake - 8th March 1876.
Having to set up his geology and mining department at the college, preparing teaching notes and adjusting to life in what was a very foreign country to him and his British colleagues was demanding. However, during every vocation he travelled Japan, recording not only its geology but the natural history, archaeology and local customs. In 1878 he travelled to the Kurile Islands on the way he stays at the Ganjo-je Temple on Hokkaido, falls in love with Abbot Jokye Horikawa’s daughter, Toné who he marries in Tokyo during1881.
But it was the Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake on 22nd February 1880 which brought about the major turning point in Mile’s life. Earthquakes could he realised be systematically studied, their effects greater understood, their devastation reduced and he wondered are they possible to predict. His enthusiasm fired not only his companions but also the controlling Japanese authorities and the first working meeting Seismological Society of Japan takes place on 26th April that year. It was the first society for the exclusive study of earthquakes in the world. For political expediency a Japanese official was its head, but John Milne as its secretary was for the time he stayed in Japan its driving forces, writing millions of words in its journal and for other papers published in Britain and elsewhere.
Seismographs and the stone age
With Gray, Milne designed a seismograph which not only recorded the time of an earthquake but gave some indication of its epicentre and by 1881 it was being manufactured in Britain. In the next few years the first textbook on seismology “Earthquake and other Earth Movements” was published, he had been given a prize from the East Indian Section of the Dutch Royal Institution of Engineers, he had travelled back to England via San Francisco, published a papers on the Stone Age in Japan and one on crystallo-physics as well as writing a fair number of fictional stories for the Tokyo Times. But above all he had written under the pseudonym of Mark Kershaw ‘Colonial Facts and Fictions’ covering journeys to new Zealand and Australia and highlighting the sickening animal cruelty he at times observed. It was a best seller on British railway station bookstalls.
Fellow Of The Royal Society
In 1887, at the early age of 37 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and read the paper ‘Earthquake Effects – Emotional and Moral’. The Royal Society in his later years was to honour him not only with its Bakerian Medal but in 1908 its prestigious Royal Medal putting him in the same league with such as Faraday and Kelvin to name just two. In the same year he was appointed to the Japanese Committee of Building which formulated the first codes of practice for construction in seismic areas. A year later he was, as a foreigner, decorated by the Emperor and elevated to Chokunin.
On the Isle of Wight
Before fire destroyed his home in 1895 and he returned to settle at Shide, then just a hamlet outside Newport, he had published with W.K. Burton ‘The great Earthquake of 1891’ and ‘The Volcanoes of Japan’, been awarded the Lyell Medal of the Royal Geological Society and had printed a catalogue of 8331 earthquake in Japan from 1885 to 1892. His ‘Miners Handbook’ published in London was still in use in the late 1920s. He also found time between writing and teaching to have his marriage to Toné confirmed in Tokyo according to British Law.
After nearly twenty years in Japan, early all only had their four year contract at the most renewed once, he resigned from the University. Before leaving the Emperor awarded him the Third Order of Merit with the Order of the Rising Sun and a pension of 1000 yen per year for life. With his Japanese wife, Toné, he moved into Shide Hill House during July 1895.
Life at Shide, near Newport
He quickly set to work, built an observatory in the coach-house for the Milne Horizontal Seismograph the latest of his instruments which was so sensitive that it detected even quite small earthquakes from around the world. A laboratory, now 27 Blackwater Road, was built using a gift from M H Gray. Many locals caught his enthusiasm and joined his team processing information from 30 stations around the world. The Shide Circulars, now the International Seismic Summary, were regularly published (the longest printing contract the IW County Press has ever had). In 1902 he was given the title ‘Emeritus Professor of Seismology Tokyo University’ and shortly afterwards Oxford added an honorary doctorate. Many scientists and other visitors from around the world called at his home including the then Prince of Wales and foreign dignitaries. He lectured both locally and nationally, developed better seismographs and took an active part in Island life especially its golf. In 1912 professor John Milne featured as an ‘Eminent Living Geologist’ in the Geological Magazine.
After a short illness he died on the evening of 31st July 1913. The observatory moved to Oxford after the war in 1919, the site and home sold and Toné returned to Japan and died there in 1926. They had no children. The gravestone at St Paul’s, Barton is a Royal Society memorial.
Space prevents so many other fascinating aspects of this Victorian polymath’s life being included. His humour and love of life, interest in music, Japanese culture and other arts, participation in local politics, his objection to ‘the daylight saving bill’, local golf and ghost stories are a few left out. There is no mention either of the volcano which bears his name in the Pacific or how the Toné and her Japanese visitors influence the quiet life of Shide.
Find out more
From early school reports to items salvaged from the Japanese fire, including the manuscript and drawings of his Iceland trip, with many other artefacts are deposited at the Isle of Wight Record Office. The Carisbrooke Castle Museum has several thousand photographs, including many seen in the talk, and other artefacts connected with Professor John Milne FRS.