Hampshire & Isle of Wight

John Milne: Isle of Wight's earthquake science pioneer

John Milne with Russian seismologist Prince Boris Galitzin and his wife Tone Harikawa looking at one of his seismographs on the Isle of Wight in 1911.
Image caption John Milne (centre) with Russian seismologist Prince Boris Galitzin and his wife Tone Harikaw

An iron lamp-post on the Isle of Wight played an unlikely part in teaching the world about the nature of earthquakes.

It was part of a homemade seismograph designed by a Victorian scientist to pick up signs of tiny ground tremors.

Despite John Milne's pioneering experiments causing quite a stir on the island, where some locals mistook his instruments for ghostly activity, his name is now little known outside scientific circles.

He is however, revered in Japan where he laid the foundations for how the country copes with the ever-present danger of earthquakes.

Milne's great nephew has produced a film on his achievements, part of a series of commemorative events on the island marking 100 years since his death.

Dr William Twycross, a GP in Australia, said his family was always aware of their illustrious forbear, who became known as the "father of seismology".

While producing The Man Who Mapped the Shaking Earth, Dr Twycross travelled to some of the earthquake zones his great uncle had visited, including San Francisco, Iceland and Japan.

Image caption More than 15,000 people died following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011

"It was very exciting, we learnt a lot more about his life. He was a remarkable man and a great traveller," he said.

Island life

Milne moved to the Isle of Wight in 1895 with his Japanese wife. From his observatory at Blackwater Road in Shide, he collated and analysed earthquake information sent from around the world.

Based on his studies of tremor data he plotted the Pacific fault line known as the "Ring of Fire".

The Isle of Wight Society's biography recalls how Milne became a familiar figure around the island. He acquired a full size lamp-post from a local ironmongers to make a horizontal seismograph which could detect tiny tremors.

Many scientists and dignitaries from around the world called at his home, including the then Prince of Wales.

For some islanders however, the science was something of a mystery.

Slight movements in his instruments' lights at night was enough to convince drinkers at the Barley Mow pub that the Isle of Wight was tipping up and down. Others thought it was the sign of ghosts in the fields.

Another piece of monitoring equipment installed at a sailing club showed increased readings at the same time each evening - which was eventually put down to a regular liaison between a butler and a chambermaid in an adjoining room.

While working in Japan from the 1870s, Milne built what is believed to be the world's first seismograph and identified the fault line on which, more than a century later, the epicentre of the devastating earthquake of 2011 lay.

He also produced the first guidelines for civil engineers constructing buildings in earthquake-prone regions which Dr Twycross said "saved millions of lives".

The Japanese emperor conferred on him the honour of the Third Order of the Rising Sun for his contribution to the understanding of the quakes and he was given the title of emeritus professor of seismology at Tokyo University.

Image caption John Milne produced guidelines for building in earthquake zones

Dr Twycross accepts Milne will always be more famous in Japan than in his native country.

"It's bound to happen - earthquakes are an important part of the history of Japan, more so than in Britain which is not as prone," he said.

"At the time it was meeting of Victorian technology and the need to discover what was going on in the earth."

Among events to honour Milne on the centenary of his death are a church service and a premiere screening of Dr Twycross's documentary at Newport's Quay Arts Centre.

And Newport Golf Club, which Milne established, has hosted its 99th annual John Milne Vase competition in his honour.

An exhibition of his life and work at Carisbrooke Castle earlier this year was unveiled by the Japanese ambassador.

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