The Big One: The Earthquake That Rocked Early America and Helped Create a Science

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The Big One: The Earthquake that Rocked Early America and Helped Create a Science by Jake Page and Charles Officer Houston Mifflin, 2004; $24.00

Which of the lower forty-eight states has survived the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the United States? Strange to relate, the answer is not California, but Missouri. In the middle of the night, on December 16, 1811, the residents of the town of New Madrid awoke to a churning in their stomachs and a rumbling in their ears. Stumbling into the darkness, they saw the ground flapping like a wind-tossed sheet, buildings crumbling all around, and, some claimed, the Mississippi reversing itself, flowing toward the north.

Radiating tremors tumbled homesteaders from their beds in neighboring Kentucky and shook church bells in Charleston, South Carolina. Aftershocks continued for months, and two more major temblors shook the Earth again on January 23 and February 7, 1812, finishing off what the December quake had not destroyed and rattling windows in Montreal, a thousand miles away. By the time the entire episode was over, the course of the Mississippi had been changed in many places, and a new landscape of lakes and ridges had been sculpted. Entire towns had disappeared.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century all this was a puzzlement; when and where earthquakes might occur was anybody's guess. According to Jake Page, a science writer, and Charles Officer, a geologist, the scientists of the day had only the faintest idea that earthquakes might be associated with volcanoes or tectonic forces. They had no way of making quantitative records of geologic disturbances, and they knew nothing of the Earth's interior. To those who relied on guesswork and quasi-scientific analogy, earthquakes were traceable to such factors as unfavorable wind conditions, electrical disturbances, and the natural wrinkling of the Earth's cooling crust. To the pious, earthquakes were acts of divine retribution-though why Missouri deserved God's wrath any more than Washington, D.C., or New York City was, then as now, a theological enigma.

Page and Officer take the New Madrid quake as a point of departure for their genial history of modern earthquake science. Seismographs were a key development: a host of clever recording devices were introduced by British, Japanese, and Italian inventors in the mid 1800s. …