Robert Mallett: A major Irish engineer and the ‘father of seismology’

The Irish are world famend for his or her heat and humor. In terms of engineering feats, although, they appear to be extremely modest folks, writes civil environmental engineer Justin Waples.

There’s an outdated saying that ‘necessity is the mom of all invention’. And I feel once we mirror on Eire’s historical past – and the bodily and emotional hardships the Irish have endured over millennia – it’s no surprise that the nation persistently punches above its weight within the area of engineering.

Irish engineers: Very inventive and wonderful visionaries

There’s something I discover very intriguing about Irish engineers; they’re, on the entire, very inventive and wonderful visionaries. I’m not Irish, although; I’m an outsider. I’m an Australian expat engineer, sharing somewhat perspective from my workplace in San Francisco.

The Californian metropolis is positioned in a area riddled with a seismic fault zone and has had its justifiable share of quakes, so I feel Irish engineer Robert Mallet – often called ‘the daddy of seismology’ – is a becoming prodigy to start out the dialogue.

Robert Mallet (1810-1881), Wikipedia Inventive Commons.

Although, simply earlier than we take a deeper take a look at Mallet, let’s start to think about what might have helped shape these Irish engineers and their wonderful legacies.

I’m not a sociologist, so the speculation I current right here could also be on shaky floor. Nonetheless, some psychologists counsel that experiencing hardships in youth can contribute to accelerated improvement in maturity and enhanced problem-solving talents.

Youngsters that develop up in environments of deprivation additionally are usually extra centered on the place they wish to go in life; and have an uncanny skill to suppose outdoors the field. On the flip aspect although, kids who develop up enduring such environmental stresses can be extra liable to despair and different points.

For engineers like Robert Mallet, his struggles, and instruments of rising up in Eire throughout the eve of the Nice Famine, might have contributed to his tenacious thoughts. That, collectively together with his unyielding curiosity of the world round him, might have helped him notice lots of his future engineering accomplishments.

Thirst for scientific understanding and engineering analysis

Becoming a member of his father within the household’s thriving foundry enterprise within the early 1830s, after graduating from Trinity Faculty Dublin, Mallet might have fared higher than lots of his fellow Irish on the time. His engineering talents led him to rapidly turn out to be a associate within the foundry firm; and the following wholesome dose of sensible drawback fixing collectively together with his thirst for scientific understanding and engineering analysis, stood him nicely later in his profession.

Mallet had a longing for wanting to know the world round him and, utilizing utilized engineering, he developed a number of key scientific developments, initially within the area of metallurgy whereas working on the household’s foundry, and later within the area of seismology.

Mallet additionally made plenty of different notable civil engineering contributions in Eire, such because the elevating roof of the St George’s Church in Dublin, for which he was awarded the distinguished Walter Premium from the Establishment of Civil Engineers. Across the identical time, Mallet developed a burgeoning curiosity in direction of geology and seismology. It’s this work in seismology for which he’s maybe finest identified.

St George’s Church, Dublin, circa 1966. Picture: RTE archives.

Whereas Eire was within the grips of the Nice Famine, Mallet offered a key paper ‘On the dynamics of earthquakes’ to the Royal Irish Academy, through which he proposed that earthquakes have been attributable to floor “waves of elastic compression”.

Mallet took his research additional and carried out arguably among the first seismic experiments ever undertaken. He exploded gunpowder cartridges on Killiney seaside to quantify shock waves within the sand utilizing a seismoscope.

Co-invented the seismoscope

Mallet was attributed to having co-invented the seismoscope with Thomas Romney Robinson, an exceptional Irish astronomer and physicist. The seismoscope was an early instrument used for producing qualitative measurements of the movement produced by earthquakes.

Mallet continued to conduct seismic experiments on Dublin’s Dalkey island and additional overseas, to contribute to the physique of information within the younger area of seismology.

In 1854, Mallet, with the assistance of his son, revealed a world seismicity map. Of key point out right here, their map famous the coincidence of volcanoes with seismic exercise. So as to add, Mallet proposed the time period ‘seismology’ to seek advice from the examine of earthquakes.

Robert Mallet’s 1854 Seismicity Map. Picture: Wikimedia Inventive Commons.

However how may the Irish sense of journey have contributed to Mallet’s seismic engineering contributions that led to him being known as the daddy of seismology?

In 1858, shortly after the good Basilicata earthquake (later often called the good Neapolitan earthquake), which devastated southern Italy, Mallet was commissioned by the Royal Society of London and Dublin’s Royal Geological Society, to spend a few months there doing a forensic investigation to check injury to engineered buildings equivalent to buildings; and to research by way of statement, the topographic scars that remained seen from the occasion.

He set off on the journey in late January 1858 and traveled to southern Italy by way of a route throughout the European continent.

Mallet trekked about 500km by way of the exceptionally mountainous area of southern Italy with mules, an interpreter, and several other assistants to forensically observe the devastation.

The extent of the bodily destruction and lack of life within the area shocked Mallet, as it could anybody. As he wrote in his prolonged report titled ‘The Nice Neopolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Ideas of Observational Seismology’; to watch the devastation together with his personal eyes, and to listen to first-hand accounts from the villages of the terrors “required some hour’s familiarity with such scenes earlier than the thoughts assumed enough composure and functionality of abstracting the eye, to pursue the quick object of my inquiry”.

Mallet’s foresight to fee two French photographers to report extensively the devastation, producing among the earliest stereoscopic earthquake pictures ever recorded.

Stereoscopic picture, ruined Polla village, Italy. Picture: Alphonse Bernoud (1820-1889).

“Of cities located inside three or 4 miles of one another, one is discovered completely destroyed, the opposite is scarcely injured. It appears inexplicable at first sight, that each ought to have been virtually equally close to, to the identical subverting company from beneath; he wrote. This phenomenon noticed by Mallet greater than 150 years in the past has additionally been witnessed in our modern instances.

Mallet’s vital scientific work in Italy included efforts to calculate the earthquake’s epicentre (location on floor centre) and hypocentre (depth beneath floor floor).

Robert Mallet’s sketch explaining transverse forces and object trajectory.

Apart from his work on seismic engineering ideas, he additionally made many different notable contributions to supplies engineering all through his profession, leading to him acquiring a number of patents, together with a patent for a technique of defending metals from corrosion.

Certainly one of his extra notable contributions outdoors of seismology was the event of the modulus of resilience, to evaluate a cloth’s skill to resist an utilized vitality.

Suitability of supplies in public and residential buildings

Initially utilized in reference to metals and in a report back to the British Admiralty relating to the development of its ships and cannons, Mallet’s modulus of resilience was additionally utilized in assessing the suitability of supplies in public and residential buildings. In Mallet’s report of the Nice Neapolitan Earthquake, he referred to this engineering property of fabric, to clarify why such a mess of church buildings and dwellings collapsed.

The UK’s Institute of Civil Engineers accepted the modulus of resilience in its Handbook of Civil Engineering in 1867, and much more than 100 years later was nonetheless being referred to by civil and mechanical engineers.

Over the course of his huge engineering profession, Mallet contributed a library’s value of engineering and scientific materials. He was a staunch advocate for the development of engineering information.

Unexpectedly, within the depths of the 1871 winter Mallet’s eyesight started to undergo; Ultimately dropping virtually all of his sight. With the help of an assistant nevertheless, he toiled on for a number of extra years with theoretical engineering pursuits. He handed away in London in November 1881, as hurricane-force winds battered town with unprecedented power.

Maybe it’s a becoming coincidence that Mallet died throughout one of many hottest and windiest Novembers on report. He was actually a rare drive of nature on the earth of engineering.

Trinity Faculty, iron railing from Mallet Foundry, Google Maps.

The subsequent time you might be in Dublin and stroll previous Trinity Faculty, spare a thought for Robert Mallet. A former Trinity scholar, and memorable Irish engineer whose household title is solid on the railing on Nassau Avenue.

Mallet is amongst a major variety of the world’s most distinctive engineers who have been born and educated in Eire. Why does the nation produce so many engineers of such wonderful talents and vitality?

In Half 2 of this sequence, we’ll discover this query additional and try Michael O’Shaughnessy (1864-1934), an engineer from Co Limerick. After shifting overseas and growing a strong popularity as a hydraulic engineer in Hawaii, O’Shaughnessy’s later position as town engineer for San Francisco was pivotal within the reconstruction of key infrastructure after the Nice San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. His wonderful infrastructure legacy for town ​​of San Francisco continues to at the present time.


1) british Geological Survey, Earthquake Seismology Commentary Strategiesaccessed June 12, 2023,

2) Cox, R; Robert Mallet: Engineer and Scientist, Dublin Institute for Superior Research.

3) Daintith, J & Gjertsen D; (2003) A Dictionary of Scientists; Robert Mallet (1810-1881) civil engineer and scientist, Oxford College Press, UK.

4) Leaney, E & Byrne, P; (2012) Mallet, RobertDictionary of Irish Biography, Royal Irish Academy

5) Mallet, R; (1857) Nice Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857Royal Society, Nice Britain.

6) McAslan, A; (2010) The Idea of Resilience: Understanding its Origins, Which means and UtilityTorrens Resilience Institute, Australia