Robert Mallet-Father of Seismology

Robert Mallet-Father of Seismology

In the mid nineteenth century, Dublin became the centre of Seismology – the study of earthquakes – as a result of the pioneering experiments performed by a local man, Robert Mallet, who became known internationally as the ‘Father of Seismology.’ Born in Dublin on the 3rd June 1810, Robert was the son of John Mallet, the owner of a very successful iron foundry business at Ryder’s Row. His interest and proficiency in chemistry was apparent from an early age, and he would spend much of his time formulating intriguing experiments in a small room he used as his laboratory, at the family home.

In 1826, Robert entered Trinity College, Dublin, where, after achieving a degree in science and mathematics, he left in 1830 to work in his father’s factory and quickly acquired sound knowledge of engineering. During this time, he gained further information from visiting and observing other engineering in England. In November 1831, Robert married Cordelia Watson, who came from a prominent Dublin family, successful in the book-selling business and together they had three children. A year later, Robert became a partner in his father’s foundry, greatly contributing to its expansion and success in becoming one of the most significant engineering works in Ireland, trading as J & R Mallet. The factory extensively provided ironworks for railway companies, cast-iron bridges, the Noire viaduct, the Fastnet Rock lighthouse in Co. Cork and supplied the decorative railings around Trinity College, Dublin, which bears the family name plate.


At the young age of 24, Robert was awarded the Walker Premium from the Institution of Civic Engineers in London for his inventive restoration work on St. George’s Church, Dublin. He raised and sustained the collapsing roof, by devising an inter-weaving system of metallic framing into the roof timbers, enabling the supporting walls to be rebuilt, whilst retaining the roof. He undertook contracts with the Shannon Commissioners for the construction of the swivel bridges over the River Shannon at Athlone Co. Westmeath, Co. Limerick, Portumna, Co. Galway, Banagher, Co. Offaly and Shannon Harbour. He also designed and implemented the water supply, the machine for washing casks and sky cooler for the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s Gate Dublin, and the engines and machinery in the coal mines at Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny.

Following his research into the corrosion of iron, Robert patented several methods of engineering, his first was in 1841 for a technique to protect metal from oxidation, particularly in iron ships or buoys. He later devised a method to strengthen metal without increasing its weight, known as buckled-plate flooring, which he patented in 1852. This innovative flooring has been used in many prominent buildings and bridges, including Westminster Bridge in London. In 1854, Robert designed a huge mortar weighing 42 tons, and two mortar cannons, which were intended to be used in the Crimean War. The mortar was uniquely made of separate iron rings that could be transported to the Crimea and then reassembled, but the war ended before it could be used. It was the largest mortar ever made in Britain and is housed at the Royal Armouries Museum in Hampshire, England.


Robert maintained his passion for science and geology throughout his life, having a particular interest and fascination in earthquakes and volcanoes. He contributed numerous significant papers in geology and metallurgy to the Royal Irish Academy, of which he became a member in 1833. His paper, ‘On the Dynamics of Earthquakes’ which he presented to the academy in 1846, is believed to be the first seismological study in the world. He was president of the Geological Society of Dublin from 1846 to 1848, where his intricate research proved invaluable. In 1849, Robert and his son, John, carried out the world’s first controlled seismic experiment on Killiney Beach, Dublin. They detonated gunpowder explosions and, with Robert’s pioneering invention, a seismoscope, they measured the speed of the energy waves moving through the sand and rock and proved that the waves shook the ground, causing disastrous earthquakes.

On the 16th December, 1857, Basilicata in Southern Italy was devastated by the great Neapolitan Earthquake which caused 11,000 deaths. Through the influence of two prominent geologists, Charles Lyle and Charles Darwin, Robert received a grant from the Royal Society of London, to travel to Italy and scientifically investigate the disastrous event. He was the first to use photography in his report and an isoseismal map which showed the intensity of the damage. His report remains invaluable to seismic research today.

Robert’s scientific studies also extended to volcanoes. His most important paper, ‘Volcanic Energy: an Attempt to develop its True Origin and Cosmical Relations’ explained how volcanic heat was the result of disturbances in the crust of the earth, leading to the formation lines of fracture, into which water could seep and if the temperature were sufficient, would often cause volcanic eruptions of steam or lava.

Following the death of his wife in 1854, Robert moved to London, where, later in 1861, he met and married the daughter of his landlady, Mrs. Dial. Alongside his scientific research, Robert continued his career as a civil engineer, regularly contributing papers to the Institution of Civil Engineers in London and Dublin, from which he was awarded the Telford Medal. In 1877, he received the prestigious Wallaston Medal of the Geological Society of London. Unexpectedly struck by ill health, Robert spent the last year of his life bed-ridden, suffering from diffuse cystitis. He died in November 1881 and was buried in Norwood Cemetery, South London.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s