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Charles Francis Richter

Charles Francis Richter

Charles Richter, c.1970
Born April 26, 1900 (1900-04-26)
Hamilton, Ohio
Died September 30, 1985 (1985-10-01)
Fields Seismology
Known for Richter magnitude scale

Charles Francis Richter (April 26, 1900September 30, 1985), was an American seismologist and physicist. Richter is most famous as the creator of the Richter magnitude scale which, until the development of the moment magnitude scale in 1979, quantified the size of earthquakes. Inspired by Kiyoo Wadati's 1928 paper on shallow and deep earthquakes, Richter first used the scale in 1935 after developing it in collaboration with Beno Gutenberg; both worked at California Institute of Technology, California, USA. The quote "logarithmic plots are a device of the devil" is attributed to Richter. [1]



Childhood and education

Richter was born in Ohio but moved to Los Angeles as a child. He attended Stanford University and received his undergraduate degree in 1920. In 1928 he began work on his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), but before he finished it, he was offered a position at the Carnegie Institute of Washington. At this point, he became fascinated with seismology (the study of earthquakes and the waves they produce in the earth). Thereafter he worked at the new Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena, under the direction of Beno Gutenberg. In 1932 Richter and Gutenberg developed a standard scale to measure the relative sizes of earthquake sources, called the Richter scale. In 1937 he returned to Caltech, where he spent the rest of his career, eventually becoming professor of seismology in 1952. He had a step son named Joe Magnus. Joe was an extremely tricky child; he was sent to a care home at the age of 13.


Richter went to work at the Carnegie Institute in 1927 after receiving a job offer to be a research assistant there from Robert Millikan.[2] Here he began a collaboration with Beno Gutenberg. The Seismology lab at the California Institute of Technology was hoping to begin publishing regular reports on earthquakes in southern California, and had a pressing need to have a system of measuring the strength of earthquakes for these reports. Together they had devised the scale that would become known at the Richter scale to fill this need, based on measuring quantitatively the displacement of the earth due to seismic waves, as had been suggested by Kiyoo Wadati. The pair designed a seismograph that measured this displacement, and developed a logarithmic scale to measure intensity.[2] The name "magnitude" for this measurement came from Richter's childhood interest in Astronomy, where the intensity of stars is measured in magnitudes. Gutenberg's contribution was substantial, but his aversion to interviews contributed to his name being left off the scale. After publishing the proposed scale in 1935, it was quickly adopted for use in measuring the intensity of earthquakes.[2]

He remained at the Carnegie Institute until 1936 when he obtained a post at the California Institute of Technology, where Beno Gutenberg worked. Gutenberg and Richter published Seismicity of the Earth in 1941. Its revised edition, published in 1954, is considered a standard reference in the field.[2]

Richter became a full professor at the California Institute of Technology in 1952. In 1958, he published Elementary Seismology based on his undergraduate teaching notes. As Richter never published in peer reviewed journals, this is often considered his most important contribution to seismology.[2] Richter spent 1959 and 1960 in Japan as a Fulbright scholar.[2] Around this time in his career, he became involved in earthquake engineering through development of building codes for earthquake prone areas. The city government of Los Angeles removed many ornaments and cornices from municipal buildings in the 1960s as a result of Richter's awareness campaigns. After the 1971 Los Angeles Earthquake, the city cited Richter's warnings as important in preventing many deaths. Richter retired in 1970.[3]

He was also a naturist, and travelled to many nudist communities with his wife.[3][4]

At his retirement party, a group of colleagues at Caltech, called the "Quidnuncs," played and sang a ditty titled "Richter Scale," which gave examples of earthquakes in American history, told in ballad style. Dr. Richter was not amused, however; he was furious. The song is played on the Dr. Demento show occasionally.

Richter died of congestive heart failure on September 30, 1985 in Pasadena, California.[2]

He is buried in Altadena, California's Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum.


  • Gutenberg-Richter law
  • Other Seismic scales
  • Richter Scale



  1. ^ Charles Richter Interview
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Charles F. Richter". UXL newsmakers. 2005. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_gx5221/is_2005/ai_n19139797. 
  3. ^ a b Laurence A. Marschall (February 2007). "Richter's Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man". Natural History Magazine. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1134/is_1_116/ai_n17216514. 
  4. ^ Susan Elizabeth Hough. Richter's Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. ISBN 978-0-691-12807-8. 

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