Earthquakes as Explored in the Early Philosophical Transactions (& Elsewhere)

August 31, 2016

The recent devastating earthquake and aftershocks in Italy reminded us of the attention paid to earthquakes at the Royal Society of London from its earliest days. Volume one of the Philosophical transactions contained a relation “communicated by the excellently learned Dr. Wallis” concerning the “late Earthquake in Oxford” on January 29, 1666 (stylo novo), characterized by “some kind of odde shaking or heaving.” Philosophical transactions, 1 (1665 – 1666), pp. 166-171. Special Collections holds a print set of this important and pathbreaking scientific journal from volume 1, issue 1, through the end of the 18th century; the journal is also available online in JSTOR and through the Royal Society.

Another earthquake in Oxford on September 17, 1683, received notice from a “Fellow of a College in that University, and of the Royal Society” in volume 13. “An account of the earthquake that happened at Oxford and the parts adjacent Sept. 17. 1683. By a fellow of a college in that university, and of the Royal Society,” Philosophical transactions, 13 (1683), pp. 311-321.

The following year Martin Lister (or Lyster, as he was identified in that particular issue of the Philosophical transactions) concerned himself with the “material cause” of thunder, lighting, and earthquakes, which he identified as “The Inflamable breath of the Pyrites.” “Three papers of Dr. Martin Lyster, the first of the nature of earth-quakes; more particularly of the origine of the matter of them, from the pyrites alone,” Philosophical transactions, 14 (1684), pp. 512-51.

A decade later the topic of earthquakes in Italy engaged Martin Hartop, who also attributed this “Horizontal Trembling” to “the furious Passage of the incens’d matter” (p. 828), and speculated about the possibility of “Lightning and Thunder under ground in some vast Repositories there.” “A letter from … Naples … [t]ogether with an account of the late earthquake in Sicily,” Philosophical transactions, 17 (1693), pp. 827-829.

In the next volume, Hans Sloane, secretary of the Royal Society, referred to accounts of earthquakes in Peru and Jamaica (the latter his own firsthand account, “being present in it” – p. 78). He also spoke in Baconian terms to the value of accounts “of different Earthquakes” or “differing Observations of the same Earthquake”: “we cannot have too many of the phænomena, or Matters of Fact accompanying them recorded, I think it will be best they be all preserved for future use.…” (p. 78). “A letter from Hans Sloane, M. D. and S. R. S. with several accounts of the earthquakes in Peru October the 20th 1687. And at Jamaica, February 19th. 1687/8 and June the 7th. 1692,” Philosophical transactions, 18 (1694), pp. 78-100.

In line with Sloane’s advice, the pages of the Philosophical transactions continued to include accounts, firsthand or otherwise, of earthquakes near and far, and efforts to explain their cause. Several authors did not content themselves with pieces read to the Royal Society or published in the Philosophical transactions, but also published their accounts as separate works, sometimes expanded and/or in multiple editions.

The Thordarson Collection contains examples of such (re)publications. In a second edition of his Philosophy of earthquakes, natural and religious (1750), for example, William Stukeley, M.D., Rector of St. George’s, Fellow of the College of Physicians and of the Royal Society, explained that “The substance of the philosophical part of this discourse was delivered at [sic] twice to the Royal Society on March 15, and 22 [1750]: the theological, in my own church. I could not refuse the solicitation of my friends, hearers in both places, to print it” (in two editions, both in 1750).

Title page, The philosophy of earthquakes, natural and religious (1750). Thordarson Collection, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-
Title page, William Stukeley, The philosophy of earthquakes, natural and religious, 2nd ed. (1750). Thordarson Collection, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-

The copy of the 2nd edition in the Thordarson Collection (with call number Thordarson T 4410) also contains “Part II,” as promised on the title page of part I: the latter reproduced Stukeley’s letter addressed to Martin Folkes, president of the Royal Society, as read to the Society on December 6, 1750, and printed in volume 46 of the Philosophical transactions. As Stukeley explained, “The Year 1750. may rather be called the Year of Earthquakes, than of Jubilee.”

Part II, also published in 1750.
Part II, also published in 1750.

In another volume in the Thordarson Collection (call number Thordarson T 4411), multiple treatises on earthquakes were bound together by Riviere & Son, a bookbinding firm in London to whom Thordarson often turned, despite its distance from the American Midwest. The titles in this volume speak both to the Royal Society’s interest in the topic of earthquakes ca. 1750 and to the market for separately published tracts derived from accounts presented to the Society.

Riviere and Sons binding, call number Thordarson T 4411.
Riviere and Son binding, call number Thordarson T 4411.

The volume begins with a 3rd edition of Stukeley’s Philosophy of earthquakes, comprising the first two parts originally published in 1750 supplemented by a “part III” as read at the Society on January 15, 1756.

Part I, 1756.
Part II, 1756.
Part III (1756).
Part III (1756).

It also includes works by the Rev. Mr. Horton, schoolmaster at Hampton, and Stephen Hales, Fellow of the Royal Society, accomplished experimentalist, and friend of Stukeley.

Horton's account of earlier earthquakes in Italy (1756).
Horton’s account of earlier earthquakes in Italy (1756).

Horton’s treatise was filled with multiple accounts, first-person or secondhand, of earthquakes “which happened at Leghorn [Livorno] in Italy” in 1742. We surmise that the earthquakes of 1750 prompted him to revisit those accounts and put them in print – as Sloane had said, a half-century before, “we cannot have too many of the phænomena, or Matters of Fact accompanying them recorded.” Horton  also translated a sonnet (“I have forgot the name of the Author”) entitled “The earthquake.”

Horton's translation, entitled "The earthquake. A sonnet."
Horton’s translation, entitled “The earthquake. A sonnet.”

The Italian original of this poem appeared in fact in various 17th-century editions of the poetry of Ciro di Pers, 1599-1663. One, Poesie del cavalier fra Ciro di Pers, con nuoca aggiunta in questa seconda impressione (Venice: Appresso B. Miloco, 1677), from the holdings of the University of Michigan, is available in both Google Books and HathiTrust: the poem, there entitled “Terremoto,” can be found on p. 56.

Stephen Hales had communicated to the Royal Society an account by his “Neighbour Mr. Bowman” of an earthquake “felt at East Molesey in Surry,” explaining he had confidence in Bowman’s “Veracity and Abilities to make the proper Observations.” But Hales also offered to the Society, and subsequently in a separate slim publication, his own “considerations on the causes of earthquakes,” mixing together “a probable natural account of them,” informed by meteorological conditions just before and during earthquakes and invoking experimental results concerning electrical phenomena,” with “the role of Divine Agency.”

Hales' separate publication of 1756.

These works thus speak to the interests of the Royal Society and its fellows over many decades. But they also speak to practices of print culture in the 17th and 18th century, in which accounts presented to the Royal Society – and published in its Philosophical transactions – also found publishers willing to issue them as separate publications, sometimes in multiple editions, in hopes of a broader audience.