Throwback Jack: Ignatian seismology

September 8, 2011

This year’s freshman class literally shook campus with its arrival. The earthquake that struck D.C. during move-in week was entirely unexpected, disrupting orientation events and forcing buildings to be evacuated. In the midst of this minor crisis, University officials employed email, text messaging, and nearly every other conceivable medium to get students updates as quickly as possible.
Georgetown is slowly catching up with the technology of the times, but it’s actually an old-school device, which Georgetown abandoned around 40 years ago, that could have predicted the surprising tremors. From 1908 to the mid-1970s, Georgetown was home to five, and then four, seismographs, first kept in the South Tower of Healy Hall.  Eventually, this seismological equipment was moved to the basement of Maguire Hall, whose double-brick walls protected against temperature changes and the interference of moisture in measurements.
Why did Georgetown devote so much space to store a pile of metal and electrical equipment? There’s little sign of it left now, but Georgetown was actively involved in the Jesuit Seismological Association for decades. Jesuits around the world took interest in seismographs following their invention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jesuits have a tradition of translating knowledge into service, and seismographs quickly appealed to the order’s endeavors. Jesuits viewed seismographs as a form of public service in that they could be used to predict earthquakes and alleviate some of the devastation that they were known to cause. Involvement in seismology was also a practical way of reinforcing the idea that the relationship between religion and science need not be antagonistic.
Rev. Francis Anthony Tondorf, a professor of physics and geology, founded the Georgetown Seismological Observatory in 1911. According to an obituary published in the February 1931 edition of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Georgetown’s seismological station was “one of the best equipped in the world,” and a 1911 copy of The Washington Post called it “the most complete station of its kind in the country.” A May 1996 article in Seismological Research Letters notes that Georgetown was not alone, however. Jesuit universities across the nation, including John Carroll University, Fordham, and St. Louis University, created a collaborative network of seismological stations, and the universities exchanged data and other findings.
One of the proudest moments for Tondorf and Georgetown’s seismograph station came in September 1923 when, according to The Washington Post, the University’s seismographs predicted that an earthquake was about to occur all the way in Japan. Tondorf informed the Associated Press of his suspicion three and a half hours before news of an actual quake in Japan was released. Georgetown’s seismographs had similar success in accurately recording earthquakes that occurred in Italy and South America.
Despite both the success of the program’s findings and its esteemed position within the JSA, Georgetown eventually decided to stop using its seismographs. After the JSA dissolved in 1990, there were fewer faculty members and Jesuits interested in continuing the program.
“Without faculty specifically interested in seismology, the Jesuit universities saw no reason to continue to spend money on the operation of their seismic stations, which require regular resources and staff to continue operation,” Dr. David Ebel, director of the Western Observatory of Boston College (which Rev. Tondorf helped establish), said in an interview. Ebel added that the only Jesuit universities that still have seismologists on faculty are Boston University and St. Louis University.
So while campus panicked as an earthquake lightly shook the foundation of the nation’s capital, there was surely one Jesuit smirking at the fate of Georgetown’s once-mighty seismological program.

Read More

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ann Mouse

Very interesting history of gerogetown!

Deborah Warner

Two of Georgetown’s early seismographs are in the collections of the National Museum of American History. One is one of the two Wiechert-type instruments manufactured by Spindler & Hoyer of Gottingen. The other is the Mainka-type instrument manufactured by J.& A. Bosch of Strasburg. I am trying to find more information about them. They are in storage (and, alas, not on display), and kept safe for future research and exhibition.