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Charles Richter

co-developer of the scale used to measure earthquakes

Charles Francis Richter

Charles Francis Richter was born on a farm near Hamilton, Ohio, on April 26, 1900. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his maternal grandfather, in Los Angeles. He attended a preparatory school associated with the University of Southern California, which he attended for his freshman year. He finished his undergraduate education at Standford University, from which he received a Bachelor's degree in physics in 1920; he received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

After completing his education, Richter got a job as a research assistant at the newly established Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena. Here he teamed with laboratory director Beno Gutenberg to develop a method for measuring earthquake intensity that accurately reflected earthquake strength. Scales in use at the time rated an earthquake's intensity according to the amount of property damage it caused, meaning they were virtually useless in undeveloped areas. The Richter Scale, which was published in 1935, used a seismograph to record actual earth motion during an earthquake. It was Gutenberg who suggested that the scale be logarithmic, so that a quake of magnitude 7 would be ten times stronger than a magnitude 6, a hundred times stronger than a magnitude 5, and so on. The Richter Scale became the standard almost immediately, and remains so to this day.

Richter and Gutenberg continued to work together for several decades, monitoring and measuring seismic activity around the world. In the late 1930's, the two applied their scale to deep earthquakes (those occuring more than 185 miles below ground). In 1941, they published Seismicity of the Earth, which remained a standard seismology textbook for decades. They also worked on locating the epicenters of all major earthquakes, and on classifying them into geographical groups.

In addition to his scientific work in the field of seismology, Richter also did much to improve the chances of human survival in a major earthquake by promoting improved building codes in earthquake-prone areas, and was often quick to emphasize that much loss of life in earthquakes is due to building collapses. He was instrumental in establishing the Southern California Seismic Array, a network of instruments that has helped scientists accurately track the origin and intensity of earthquakes and map their frequency. Although many of his colleagues actively worked on ways to predict earthquakes, Richter maintained that it was near impossible to do so with any accuracy.

In 1952, Richter became a full professor of seismology at Cal Tech, where he remained the rest of his career. His most important work, Elementary Seismology, was published in 1958. The book contained detailed descriptions of major historical earthquakes, tables and charts, and discussions on earthquake motion, earthquake insurance, and building construction in earthquake-prone areas. After retiring from Cal Tech in 1970, he helped start a seismic consulting firm that evaluated buildings for the government, public utilities, and private businesses.

Charles Richter died in Pasadena on September 30, 1985.

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This page was last updated on 07/07/2018.