John Milne: The man who mapped the shaking earth, by Paul Kabrna. Craven & Pendle geological society,, 2007. No. of pages: xvi + 120. ISBN 978-0-9555289-0-3


British geology is replete with its Heroes and heroes. The Heroes are the major figures we learned about as undergraduates, whose ideas and influence have continued to be widely recognized and felt long after their deaths, with names like Smith, Lyell, Phillips and Sedgwick. The heroes are those whose less lustrous names are attached to discoveries and insights that have failed to excite quite so much idolatry. A sub-set of this latter group includes those whose research was important in geographic regions far removed from the British Isles and northern Europe. One such hero, Professor John Milne, is the subject of this entertaining biography by Paul Kabrna.

John Milne (1850–1913), D. Sc., F. R. S., F. G. S., led an active life as a field and laboratory geologist, but his principal discoveries were in distant lands, mainly Japan. Although he continued his research on his return to Britain, he lived in his ‘retirement’ on the Isle of Wight and was thus removed from the main centres of geological research.

Milne was trained at King's College, London, and the Royal School of Mines. Early fieldwork experience included Iceland, Newfoundland and the Sinai desert. And then came the offer of a professorship in mining engineering at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. He joined the Imperial College on a 3-year contract in 1876, but didn't return to Britain until 1895! I recognize the pattern – my own 3-year contract at the University of the West Indies eventually extended to 12½ years. But, whereas I flew to Kingston in a day, Milne travelled overland to Japan, a trek that took 11 months.

Milne's most important research in Japan was in volcanology – there is a Milne volcano in the Kuriles – and, particularly, seismology. Colleagues called him Earthquake Milne. Milne's approach to seismology involved both field observation, and measurements in the laboratory using devices of increasing complexity and efficiency. These included development of his own instrument designs, such as the Milne Seismograph. This research continued after his retirement to the Isle of Wight.

Milne the seismologist is still revered in Japan. But his interests were global, as evidenced by publications such as ‘A catalogue of destructive earthquakes AD 7 to AD 1899’ (Milne, 1912). He was a founder of the Seismological Society of Japan and a key member of the Seismological Investigation Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science until his death.

Paul Kabrna and the Craven & Pendle Geological Society have produced an informative and inexpensive biography of a true geological hero. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in geophysics, the history of geology or significant British geologists.