Thursday, 26 June 2014


A recent post at the Ptak Science Books weblog - On the Continued Rediscovery of the Horizontal Pendulum - leads into an interesting backstory with roots in Birmingham, Japan, and the Isle of Wight.

John Ptak's post draws attention to an 1896 paper (Natural Science, A Monthly Review of Scientific Progress, Volume VIII, April 1896, pp 233-238) on a very elegant piece of technology "independently discovered no less than eight times within a period of sixty years". This is the horizontal pendulum: a horizontal beam suspended more or less in the manner of the boom on a yacht. It's very low-tech in concept, but with suitable pivot position and weighting, the beam is in effect inertially isolated from the ground, and measuring relative movements between the two enables incredibly sensitive detection of horizontal vibration. It thus formed the basis, historically, of the mechanical seismometers that were state-of-the-art from the late 19th century until at least the middle of the 20th.

One standard version - probably the dominant one for a time - was the Milne-Shaw seismograph, named after its co-inventors John Milne (1850-1913) and John Johnson Shaw (1873-1948). Milne was a semi-retired academic; Shaw an amateur scientist who collaborated with him, and was instrumental in realizing and manufacturing the device as a practical commercial instrument. According to the Science Museum description - Milne-Shaw seismograph No 1, 1914 - his particular innovation was in magnifying the sensitivity optically (the machine uses an 'optical lever', where a reflected beam of light acts as a weightless extended pointer).

I got to play with a Milne-Shaw seismograph in around 1979, when I was working as a technican in the Geophysics Department of the University of Birmingham. A very aged local man - I recall he was Shaw's son, HV Shaw - brought in a boxful of pieces, and the project was to reassemble it for a forthcoming open day. It was an interesting device - cast iron, brass, agate knife-edge bearings, and so on - and we got the basic assembly cleaned and built. The recording mechanism, a motor-driven drum that would have had film wrapped around it, was beyond help, but I connected the boom to the needle of an old galvanometer, so we could get an electrical signal out. It had nothing like the sensitivity of the real setup, but it was adequate as a demo, giving a nice trace on an oscilloscope when you tapped the display case. The seismograph is still in the Historical Collection of the Lapworth Museum, University of Birmingham, presumably properly restored by now, and Shaw's papers are also archived there.

Both Shaw and Milne are well-documented online. Shaw is admirable as a classic amateur scientist and inventor, who not merely constructed and sold the seismographs from the greenhouse of his home in West Bromwich, but also was actively involved in seismology monitoring (for instance, in 1908, he gave the first notification of an earthquake in Mexico). He eventually got a CBE and an honorary MSc for his work; if he'd been in academia, he'd no doubt have got higher honours, but he remained amateur, simultaneously continuing his father's pawnbroking business. See:
John Milne is of interest for reasons that will be obvious; although Lancashire-born, he spent his retirement living at Shide, in the rural outskirts of Newport, Isle of Wight. I should have written about him a year ago - last July was the centenary of his death, and there was a deal of commemorative material about in Newport - but 2013 was a trifle hectic.

The personal circumstances of Milne - who has been called "the father of modern seismology" - are remarkable. A mining engineer and geologist, he spent a large portion of his professional career in Japan, working as a foreign advisor and professor of mining and geology at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. In 1861 he married fellow geologist Toné Horikawa (the daughter of the Buddhist abbot Jokei Horikawa), against strong disapproval from their families on religious/racial grounds (ref: IWCP). In 1895, after a fire destroyed his home, observatory and library, he resigned his posts and returned to England with his wife, his assistant Shinobu ("Snowy") Hirota, The Third Grade of the Order of the Rising Sun, and a life pension from the Emperor Mutsuhito. Milne's Newport home, Shidehill House, became a centre for seismological study - this was where the young Shaw first made Milne's acquaintance.

Milne died in 1913 - as various accounts say, too early to have seen the full flowering of the collaboration with Shaw. Early 1900s Newport can't have been the most accommodating of places for a widowed Japanese lady without Japanese-speaking acquaintances (Shinobu Hirota, as Milne noted, had returned to Japan for health reasons at the end of 1912) and Toné returned to Japan a few years later, dying there in 1926.

Shidehill House no longer exists, but the estate is still visible as what's now the built-up triangle of land at the foot of Shide Quarry. Other remnants, converted into modern housing, are the lodge (at the northern tip of the triangle) and the laboratory and servants' annexe (at the south-eastern tip, where Shidehill House was located). There are a few commemorative plaques to Milne nearby and around Newport; I'll have a look for some, if time permits next time we visit.

1898 OS map. Historic map data is (© and database right
Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd. (All rights reserved
2009). Low-resolution image reproduced for small-scale non-profit
use under the terms described in the Old Maps FAQ.

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  • John Milne - Seismologist. "The Life and Work of John 'Earthquake' Milne 1850-1913" (which links through to hypertext PDF Celebrating John Milne, Isle of Wight Society).
  • John Milne: biographical site, including detailed timeline, by St Paul's Church, Barton, Newport, where Milne is buried.
  • The father of seismology (Rafael Epstein, The Age, Mar 18 2011 - "Mansfield doctor William Twycross remembers his great-uncle John Milne's pioneering work on quakes").
  • Ref IWCP: Expert made IW centre of earthquake study, Isle of Wight County Press, August 5 1988.
  • John Milne: Father of Modern Seismology, A. Leslie Herbert-Gustar, Patrick A. Nott, pub. Paul Norbury, 1980, 196pp..
  • John Milne: The Man who Mapped the Shaking Earth, Paul Kabrna, Craven & Pendle Geological Society, 2007 (120pp).
Carisbrooke Castle Museum's Historical Images site has some very nice domestic images of the Milnes. How times change - even in these formal portraits, Milne seldom appears without a cigarette in his hand. He was, by one account, renowned for "his nicotine-stained, bushy moustache with a gap burned in it by numerous cigarettes". Although obituaries say he died of kidney disease, I'm pretty sure that smoking killed him. It's now better known that smoking exacerbates kidney disease, and the account in the display at Carisbrooke Castle Museum says that his wife commented that his cough sounded "like an oyster coming".
The Historic Images site includes a large collection of images relating to Milne. Check out searches for "Milne" / "Tone Milne" / "Shinobu" (note that you can see a larger view if you right-click on an image and select View Image).

- Ray

Addendum: see also Across Europe and Asia, by John Milne, Esq

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