Wight Life

Earthquake Milne

by R Dyson

TENNYSON AND MARCONI may have their monuments, and their association with the Isle of Wight is well-known, but how many visitors or residents have heard of the work of Professor 'Earthquake' Milne?

The answer must be few in this hemisphere, but in Japan this Victorian pioner is revered as the father of seismology, and he was accorded Japan's highest honour, the Order of the Rising Sun.

Yet, although for 18 years at the turn of the century, Professor John Milne maintained an observatory at Newport that became the world centre for earthquake science, he was until this year remembered in the town only by the name of Milne Way, Newport. Passers-by questioned there had little idea who he was. One schoolboy thought he might be a popular footballer! That position was rectified, however, by a ceremony that took place in spring sunshine one morning in March when the red carpet was rolled out for a visit by the Japanese ambassador, Mr Haruki Mori, to Newport. He planted a commemorative cherry tree on the bank of the River Medina at Shide Bridge — within sight of Shide Hill House, where the professor had his obser- vatory.

Picture of John Milne

Two more flowering cherry trees had also been specially flown over fromTokyo University and they were planted in front of the main building at the Technical College, Newport, tributes to the scientific work of 'Earthquake' Milne.

The visit of the ambassador, and his wife, Madame Mori, who also unveiled a commemorative plaque, was made possible largely through the efforts of two lecturers at the Technical College, Mr L H Herbert-Gustar, and Mr P A Nott, who are in the process of writing a biography about Professor Milne.

Mr Herbert-Gustar told me after the ceremony: 'the Japanese accorded him their highest honour, the Order of the Rising Sun. He is remembered elsewhere, but in his own country forgotten. We feel he has not been given his rightful place in the scientific his- tory of the world and in Island history.'

Interested schoolchildren watched the ceremony and heard Mr Mori say that he believed the trees would symbolise an increasing friendship between the United Kingdom and Japan. Professor Milne had left an everlasting landmark in Japan and he was very pleased to visit the place where he had lived and worked.

Perhaps it is natural that Professor Milne is not so much talked about in England because we, luckily, do not experience the horror of earthquakes. But the Japanese have good cause to be grateful to him for, while studying at the Tokyo Imperial College of Technology, the professor invented an advanced seismograph for measuring the force of earthquakes. As his knowledge of earthquakes increased he realised that many lives and much property could be saved by a better understanding of them — so he helped formulate regulations for safer buildings in earthquake zones. He helped to organise the Seismological Society of Japan, the first in the world. In short, his work saved thousands of lives, and pounds.

But, far from being a dry as dust scientist, Professor Milne appears to have been quite a character in his own right, abounding with enthusiasm for a host of interests. He was an explorer, keen naturalist, first class geologist and mining engineer. Golf, music, literature and photography were among his other loves. And he was one of the first science-fiction authors. After an adventurous boyhood, which pointed the way to things to come, he travelled to Iceland as a youth, then, in his early 20s joined a geological survey to Labrador and Newfound- land. Shortly afterwards he was searching for the true site of Mount Sinai on a religious exploration.

In 1875 came the offer to teach geology and mining at the Imperial College, Tokyo, and Milne accepted. But he suffered terribly from seasickness .... so he decided to make the trip overland. That was before the Trans-Siberian railway had been built. It was a journey full of danger and hardship and considered almost impossible. Milne set off and travelled through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and China. Eight months and some four thousand miles later he turned up at the college to begin his epic work.

Twenty years later, his reputation as the world's foremost seismologist established, Professor Milne retired and returned, with his charming Japanese wife, and Japanese assistant, 'Snowy', to the Isle of Wight. Why to the Island you might ask. Well, apparently the clay here suited his seismological experiments. And it was at Shide House that he set up his observatory and carried on his work for another 18 years.

The observatory he established there became a world centre for earthquake science. To it came every record of an earthquake. And to it came many distinguished men from all walks of life, including royalty, such as Edward, Prince of Wales, while a cadet at Osborne, Prince Galitzen, from Russia, and the brother-in-law of the Emperor of Japan, Baron Kujo. Among men of action Captain Robert Scott was one who spent some time with the professor and his wife .... before his ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

It is hardly surprising that the local populace of the then small hamlet of Shide thought the comings and goings at Shide Hill House very odd indeed. Mrs Milne's connection with the Japanese Imperial Court brought a steady stream of visitors from Japan. Some people began to say that 'them furriners' were up to no good! The locals noticed that 'the furriners' would dismount at Shide Halt and hurry to the imposing house. Few knew that here on the slopes of the down between St George's Road and Blackwater Lane was the foremost earthquake observatory in the world. Lights needed for producing photographic records of the seismographs, which were seen burning every night through the surrounding trees, did little to reassure them. Not surprisingly a local ghost known as 'Spring Heeled Jack' soon made his appearance in the vicinity. Materialising out of a beam of light, he had been seen to jump hedges and run across fields on dark, misty nights. No doubt many a small group, suitably fortified at the 'Barley Mow', went off, armed with sticks, in search of him.

But, although, the distrust was gradually dispelled by Professor and Mrs Milne's friendly sincerity, his work was still largely 'unsung' in his own country when he died on July 3 1 st, 1913, at the age of 63. It was fitting that the Japanese ambassador, Mr Mori, decided to make an unscheduled visit after the planting of the cherry trees and civic luncheon. It was to Professor Milne's rather neglected grave in the quiet of St Paul's Church yard, Barton, where he laid a wreath of red Japanese chrysanthemums. A touching tribute to a great man.M