13 Essential Talking Points for the Earthquake Enthusiast


by Jeff Fleischer

A 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit Virginia earlier this afternoon and was felt up and down the east coast. With no reports of injuries, it seems like a good time to dust off this article from 2007.

1. The first recorded earthquake was in China in 1177 B.C.E.

2. China is also the birthplace of the first seismograph. Built in 132 C.E. by a man named Cheng Heng, it consisted of eight metal dragons holding eight carved balls over eight frog figurines. If an earthquake made the ground vibrate, the dragon facing the quake's source would (naturally) drop a ball into the mouth of its corresponding frog.

3. Of course, it didn't really work.

4. But it did look cool.

5. While dragons aren't that good at predicting earthquakes, other animals might be. According to ancient reports, critters in the Greek city of Helice headed for the hills just before a massive quake leveled the city in 373 B.C.E.

6. There's some modern evidence, as well. In 1975, Chinese officials evacuated Haicheng days before a massive earthquake, based both on warnings from seismologists and the strange behavior of local pets.

7. Before leaving Alabama, Shawnee leader Tecumseh told a Creek chief, "I "¦ shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot, and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee." Coincidentally (or was it?), he arrived in Detroit on December 16, 1811, the day of the New Madrid earthquake—the largest ever recorded in the contiguous United States.

8. The most violent earthquake ever measured in the world hit Chile in 1960, coming in at a terrifying 9.5 on the Richter scale.

9. The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, was "only" considered a 5 on the Richter scale.

10. In theory, a quake can actually measure 11, or even higher. The formula for the Richter scale has no upper limit.

11. Speaking of Charles Richter, the American scientist was supposedly an avid nudist. Rumors persist that his wife was so distressed by his penchant for hanging out in the buff that she divorced him.

12. One guy not to trust for earthquake predictions? British soldier William Bell. In 1761, right after two earthquakes uncannily hit England 28 days apart, Bell smelled opportunity. He claimed a follow-up quake would be hitting the country four weeks later. Accounts depict Bell running through the streets of London ranting about the impending destruction. Amazingly, it worked. Folks were so panicked that hundreds actually slept in boats on the Thames thinking it would be safer than their homes. Luckily, the quake never hit. But Bell quickly lost his street cred and eventually ended up in an insane asylum.

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This article was written by Jeff Fleischer, and originally appeared in the May-June 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.