Great Neapolitan Earthquake 1857   Part 3

                                                                        Earthquake Science



BY: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                 February 2015



The Earthquake that struck the Basilicata region in 1857 occurred at a time when the emerging field of earth sciences was taking its first few formative steps. Two important European pioneers of studies relating to earthquakes and volcanic activity were Luigi Palmieri and Robert Mallet. As both were contemporaries who studied the impacts and occurrences of earthquakes especially on the southern Italian peninsula they deserve to be profiled briefly here at the conclusion of my writings on the earthquake of 1857.


                                                                                  Robert Mallet (1810-1881)



                                                                       Photograph of Robert Mallet



Robert Mallet’s important study of the 1857 Lucanian quake which I have reference in Part I and Part II of this article is encompassed in his  two volume report entitled “Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology” (London 1862). Mr. Mallet’s career as an engineer, inventor, naturalist, chemical and earth scientist however extended well beyond this one important work.

 Robert Mallet was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1810. His father owned a successful plumbing business and a copper and brass foundry. Robert graduated with a B.A. from Trinity College in 1826. He joined his father’s company helping to build it into one of the most highly regarded engineering companies in Ireland. He himself became an inventive designer/engineer and a guiding force at the company.

 Like many inventive and creative minds of the period Mallet’s interests and accomplishments crossed many areas of study. For example, while working in Ireland at his father’s business he developed a process for the electromagnetic separation of brass and iron filings and also a method of bleaching turf for the manufacture of paper.

 He wrote papers on such varied subjects as the seed dispersing mechanism of geraniums in (1836), the blackening of photographic paper due to the radiation of glowing cinders (1837), the photochemical bleaching of caustic potash, the effect of boiling on organic and inorganic substances (1838), and improvements on the manufacture of optical glass wear. As I said a wide variety of intellectual interests on which he published some 85 scientific papers and shared research through contacts in the professional and scientific societies of his day.

Understandably his early activities in Ireland centered primarily on engineering projects, in which his foundry had some association. This work introduced him to challenges in large building construction including churches and bridges, railroads, dock gates, viaducts and mines. Each of these projects brought him knowledge in an array of practical scientific areas which would later aid his work in the field of earthquakes and geophysical theory. His many business projects were the catalyst for many of the research papers that he authored.

 It wasn’t until the 1840’s that he became interested in earthquakes after reading fellow scientist Charles Lyell’s description of the 1783 earthquake in Calabria, Italy. As I have mentioned the 1783 quake in southern Italy was the precedent “Great Earthquake” to strike southern Italy prior to the 1857 quake. It stood at the time as one of the greatest natural and human disasters to strike Europe in that time period. The 1783 earthquake left some 32,000-50,000 southern Italians dead in its wake and caused massive loss of property as well..

 As Mallet’s interest grew in earthquakes he produced a paper called “On the Dynamics of Earth quakes” and presented it to the Royal Irish Academy in 1846. It is also during this time that he produced an experimental seismograph although it was never employed for use. It is through Mr. Mallet’s research and papers that the words “seismology” and “epicenter” came into use.

 Between 1850 and 1856 Mallet attention in engineering design began was refocused. He was commissioned by the British government to work on the design and casting of heavy military artillery.

 His expertise in casting and foundry work acquired after almost twenty-five years made him a leading figure in the field. Not surprisingly his research in the field of large artillery gun design lead him to publish several papers on the subject of gun design and heavy gun failure which became a basis for later books on ordinance casting and founding. Impurities in casting and lack pouring supervision had for centuries caused flaws in large gun manufacture with catastrophic results for gun crews.

Interestingly it is also during this period when he began to experiment with setting off explosions in different locations in order to measure the rate of travel of seismic waves through different types of earth materials. He published a number of papers as a result of these studies as well. So once again we see in his career the combining of one field of research and work with his passion for understanding earthquake dynamics.

 Among the more important of his works on earthquakes during this period in his career had to do with creating a catalog of some 6,831 earthquakes that had been reported worldwide as occurring between 1606 B.C. and 1858 A.D. The catalog was accompanied with a seismic map. This is important in that it was part of the early work which would lead to continental plate dynamics theory as well as fault lines theory. 

 So when the earthquake of 1857 struck it was logical that Mallet would seek a grant to study the aftermath of the quake first hand and right away. He was probably the most advanced student in the field at the time. His subsequent two volume work on the 1857 earthquake demonstrates his thoroughness as well as his innovative, for the time, theories mechanics and shock wave dynamics.

 The vast majority of his two volumes report on the 1857 earthquake focuses on the earthquake mechanics as he understood them or as the observable damage suggested. However, there is also contained within the body of his work a great many first hand observations of the conditions of the roads, structures, supplies, casualties and general state of the social and civil plight of the inhabitants.

 It is to that aspect of his work that most of my attention was drawn. First my attention naturally gravitates there as this is very much the region and conditions that my ancestors experienced. Second, some of his observations I believe, provided valuable assessment information to those strategists both social and military who would be involved in determining southern Italy’s future in the early 1860’s.

 As an example in his study he takes the time to correct geographic map references to towns, conditions of earthquake damaged roads, passes, devastation of towns, supplies, ethnicities of communities, and hostilities or receptiveness of communities who had gotten relief help from English volunteer groups.

 What Mallet’s intent in including these particulars was is known only to him. It may simply be that faced with the massive destruction he traveled through he could not help but report on the human tragedy he saw. However, the information did provide the British with firsthand, real time information on conditions in the region. In modern parlance “valuable intel”. Intel which if a military action was being planned in the region would be most useful. It is important to note that military strategists since before the time of the Caesars have known that understanding and control of the geography of the mountainous central part of southern Italy is key to control of the entire region.

 I inject this thought into the discussion because Mallet’s survey was conducted in January and February of 1858.  As I will write about next article by the spring of 1858 factions of desperate Basilicatans would rise in hopeless armed conflict with the Bourbon regime. In addition, by 1858 the Piedmont regime allied with both the French and English was well into the planning of war with the Austrian Empire for control of northern Italy. The third part of the story of the time was that the Piedmont regime was secretly fostering rebellion on Sicily which would begin in 1859.



                                                                 Luigi Palmieri (1807-1896)



                                                                                        Photograph of Luigi Palmieri



 Luigi Palmieri was born in Faicchio, Benevento Italy in what today is the Campania region by way of reference about fifty miles north and slightly west of San Fele. He studied mathematics and natural sciences in Naples and got a degree in architecture from the University of Naples, now known as the University of Frederico Secundo. After graduation he taught secondary school in the Lucanian towns of Salerno, Campobasso and Avellino until 1845. In 1845 he became a professor of physics at the Royal Naval School in Naples.

 In 1847 Palmieri became the chair of the physics department at the University of Naples at the age of forty.

 In 1848 while holding the chair in physics at the University he became associated with the Meteorological observatory on Mount Vesuvius. The observatory was established by King Ferdinando II in 1841. It is the oldest Observatory dedicated to the study of volcanology in the world. The observatory’s first director was the Italian physicist Macedonio Melloni who is best remembered for his pioneering work in the properties of radiant heat. Palmieri became the observatory’s Director in 1854. This appointment was the beginning of Palmieri’s life-long study of volcanic eruptions and earthquake physics.

 In 1860 the chair of meteorological and terrestrial physics was created especially for him at the University of Naples as well as an appointment as director of the physical observatory of Naples.

 Among Palmieri’s inventions he is credited with developing the first highly sensitive and accurate seismometer for the measurement and predictions of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions through ground vibrations. He is also credited with the invention of the anemometer a device for measuring wind velocity still in use by modern weather forecasters today. He is also credited with several modifications to existing technology of the period including modifications and improvements to the Morse telegraph, the pluviometer, and the Peltier electrometer. Using his improved version of the Peltier electrometer he conducted experiments in atmospheric electricity for over forty years.

 Dr. Palmieri is credited with being the first scientist to detect the presence of Helium on earth in the trapped samplings of volcanic lava.

 Dr. Palmieri’s research on the active Vesuvius was of course not without its inherent risks. During the 1872 eruption his proximity to the eruption almost cost him his life.

I do not mean to skip over the last thirty-six years of Dr. Palmieri scientific life as he continued a very distinguished academic life. Over the course of those post 1860’s years he published a number of scientific articles, and won numerous academic awards. It is known that both Palmieri and Mallet continued a mutual professional correspondence and admiration. Palmieri used some of Mallet’s ideas in the construction of his seismometer and Mallet translated and helped to publish several of Palmieri’s articles in English.

 But I wanted at this point to comment as the events show that Mallet’s access to the earthquake region had the express support and authorization of the Bourbon regime. In like fashion the establishment of the observatory and later chair at the University of Naples was also sanctioned and supported by the Bourbon Monarchy. As I mentioned in earlier articles in many ways the Bourbon regime’s support of academic initiatives was very forward thinking for the time. Prior to Unification the intellectual, artistic, architectural and mechanical capacities of the 19th century Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was equal to if not more advanced than other regions of the peninsula.

 I find it necessary to state the above, as the positive accomplishments of southern Italian intellectuals of the 18th and 19th century is far too often overlooked or ignored in the modern history of Italy. Had only the advanced forward looking academics resulted in a more enlightened course of social action. The earthquake of 1857 provided the Bourbon regime with an opportunity to relieve the suffering of tens of thousands of individuals. Had they done so with help in the form of food, medical relief and emergency housing the record shows that they could have won “hearts and minds”. Instead they chose to essentially ignore the plight of the people and when they in desperation start looting imposed Marshall law. The result was heightened hostility toward the government which would play out badly for the Bourbon regime in the years to come.

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