Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
About HVO


Russell A. Apple (U.S. National Park Service, retired)


The digging of a cellar excavation on the north rim of Kilauea caldera in February 1912 marked the beginning of permanent facilities for what was to become the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). The Observatory was largely the creation of Thomas A. Jaggar (1871?1953), then a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) professor, who recognized the advantages, for the study of volcanism, of onsite facilities at an active volcano. Jaggar's efforts to establish an observatory at Kilauea were enthusiastically supported by Lorrin A. Thurston (1858?1931), a prominent Honolulu lawyer and businessman, who organized private support for Jaggar and HVO that continued into the 1940's. Initial support also came from M.I.T. and the University of Hawaii, and HVO was later successively sponsored by the U.S. Weather Bureau (1919?24), the U.S. Geological Survey (1924?35), the National Park Service (1935?47), and (since 1947) again the USGS.

The original HVO building, with a seismograph vault in its cellar, was in use until the early 1940's, when the Observatory was able to occupy a new building 200 m back from the caldera rim. In 1948 HVO moved to a building at the top of Uwekahuna Bluff on the northwest rim of Kilauea caldera; a new and larger building there was completed in 1986.

Under Jaggar's directorship (1912?40), HVO pioneered in seismological and other studies of volcanic processes. Seismographs were important instruments from the beginning of the Observatory, and HVO staff made numerous modifications to adapt them to the study of local volcanic seismicity. Jaggar even developed a rugged portable seismograph for use in outlying areas by amateur assistants. Early experiments in measuring the temperature of liquid lava were more educational than successful; the same can be said of the 1922 drilling program of four holes in and around Kilauea caldera. To support the drilling, HVO staff developed a modified touring car fitted with double wheels. For exploration around the coasts, an amphibious vehicle was designed and constructed.
Jaggar's campaign to obtain facilities at the top of Mauna Loa Volcano and a road leading to them was never entirely successful, but it has been made unnecessary by the advent of helicopters. Observation of the destruction of property by a lava flow in the 1926 eruption of Mauna Loa led to HVO-guided efforts to divert or stop flows threatening Hilo in 1935 and 1942 and to plans (never realized) for a set of permanent barriers. Concern for protection of lives and property also led to studies of tsunamis; in 1933 HVO used seismograms to predict (accurately) the arrival of a tsunami from a distant earthquake, and people in low-lying areas of Hawaii were for the first time successfully warned in advance. Such efforts reflected Jaggar's concern for not only the advance of science but also its application to the benefit of society.

Over its first 75 years, HVO has contributed much to the growing science of volcanology; for this a large debt is owed to the character and qualities of Thomas A. Jaggar.


A hole was to be dug?by hand. Wooden stakes marked the corners of a rectangle about 7.3 m (24 ft) long by 6.7 m (22 ft) wide only about 6 m (20 ft) from the clifflike rim of Kilauea caldera on the Island of Hawaii. It was February 16, 1912, and the foundation to be dug was for Thomas A. Jaggar's volcano observation post, precursor of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO).

The diggers were prisoners of the Territory of Hawaii, sentenced to a term of hard labor (HVO record book for 1912; Duncan, 1961). Jaggar was not above using free labor, prison or otherwise, to help stretch his limited funds. Their prison camp was nearby at what is now Kilauea Military Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The prisoners dug through almost six feet of volcanic ash and pumice to a layer of thick pahoehoe lava?a firm base for the concrete piers on which seismometers would be anchored. Plans and elevations for the piers had been hand drawn by Professor F. Omori at the Seismological Institute, Imperial University, Tokyo, Japan, and mailed two years before to Jaggar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Omori also shipped to Jaggar, care of the Territorial Division of Forestry in Honolulu, "An Omori-type Horizontal Tromometer (a seismometer) (magnification = 120?200), and a seismograph for the observation of ordinary earthquakes" (Omori, 1910). These instruments were paid for and on hand in their crates as the prisoners dug.

Soon on hand at the crater rim were carpenters and workmen of the Hilo branch of H. Hackfeld and Company, Ltd., one of Hawaii's "Big Five" companies that controlled virtually all economy in the Islands?Hackfeld later became AMFAC, a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate (Weiner, 1982). Jaggar had contracted with Hackfeld for the forms and concrete work for the seismometer vault, and for the wooden structures that were to stand over and adjacent to the vault?the rimside facilities of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The prime contract was for $1,785 and included a redwood tank for water storage. An additional $300 also went to Hackfeld for extra water-storage tanks (Jaggar, 1917a). Hackfeld executives and the directors of the other "Big Five" corporations were personally helping to sponsor the volcano observatory.

When British explorer Captain James Cook "discovered" Hawaii in 1778, Hawaiians had been living on some of the islands for as long as 1,300 years and had developed a complex, affluent Polynesian civilization. By 1795, when the various chiefdoms and islands were united to form the Kingdom of Hawaii, regular contact with Westerners had changed forever Hawaiians' environment and their way of life. However, with volcanism such an obvious presence in these growing islands, one part of the ancient Hawaiian religion that was kept?and still survives today?is the belief in the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, Pele.

Hawaiians believed that the goddess and her supernatural associates often entered into the political and social affairs of men. Pele could take human form, sometimes as a beautiful girl, sometimes as an old hag. Any female stranger could be the goddess. Pele was a major deity who had to be properly propitiated?she took offense easily?because in her anger she caused earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and she personally directed the course of her lava flows.

Hawaiians believed that the summit caldera of Kilauea Volcano was the home of Pele, her family, and associates, but those deities also had "houses" elsewhere on the Islands of Hawaii and Maui that they could visit at will; these houses include the tops of mountains and all craters, cones, and hills. Pele required special behavior from humans in the vicinity of any of her houses, especially within a radius of 10 km (6 mi) or less from Kilauea caldera, and she expected tribute.

When high chiefs or other people failed to submit proper tribute, insulted Pele, her family, or her priests, or behaved improperly in Pele's domain, then the volcanic deities expressed their anger. They either flooded Kilauea caldera with lava and violently ejected it through the air over the countryside, or they took a subterranean passage to one of their" houses" near the land and homes of those who had offended and, using that house as a base of operations, proceeded to punish the offenders by, at a minimum, covering some of their land with fresh lava (Ellis, 1827; Menzies, 1920). Pele stamped her foot enough times before and between episodes of visible volcanism to remind people of her power and presence; each stamp caused an earthquake. Pele could also call down lightning and cause thunder to roll across the sky.

In 1893, the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by non-Hawaiian businessmen. Five years later in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed Hawaii; the Islands thus became "American soil." This was one of the factors that led to the establishment of an American-sponsored volcano observatory on the rim of Kilauea Volcano (Apple, 1982; Apple and Apple, 1979a; Daws, 1968; Kuykendall, 1967).

During the nineteenth century, while the Hawaiians were being introduced to the ways of Western civilization, Hawaiian volcanoes were described in letters, reports, logs, journals, sketches, notes, and books, published in various places and some distributed worldwide. First made famous because Captain Cook was killed there, the Island of Hawaii now added another world-renowned distinction: active volcanoes. Principal fame focused on Kilauea, which appeared to be comparatively benign. Kilauea had an apparent constancy of activity within its vast summit caldera and, in contrast to some European volcanoes, was not known to wipe out villages or cast glowing fragments of lava down upon hillsides devoted to viniculture. At Kilauea, according to reports, volcanism stayed put inside a crater. While the general public was getting armchair thrills from travel writers, some scientists were also becoming aware of, and visiting, the Big Island (table 1).

Table 1. Some sources for early descriptions of the volcanoes of Hawaii

Name or type of observer
Sponsor, if any Reference
1825 Lord Byron party England Byron, 1826
1834 Botanist London Horticultural Society Douglass, 1834, 1919
1834 Captains Parker and Chase Kelley, 1841
1837 Geologist Strzelecki, 1838, 1845 Lowenstern, 1841
1839 Scientist
1839 Ship's captain Shepherd, 1840
1840 U.S. Exploring Expedition U.S. Government Wilkes, 1845
1840 Geologist U.S. Exploring Expedition Dana, 1849
1846 Professor Harvard University Lyman, 1851
1859 Geologist Green, 1887
1868 Kilauea historian Harvard University Brigham, 1868, 1869
1873 Travel Writer Bird, 1875
1880 Kilauea historian Bishop Museum Brigham, 1909
1882 Geologist U.S. Geological Survey Dutton, 1884
1883 Geologist Dartmouth College Hitchcock, 1911
1887 Geologist Yale University Dana, 1890
1909 Geologist Massachusetts Institute of Technology Daly, 1911

The scientists listed in table 1 did not always agree. First there was the continuing, friendly controversy in the American Journal of Science and Arts ("Silliman's Journal") between Rev. Titus Coan, a Hilo man who hiked to and described almost every flank eruption of Mauna Loa between 1843 and 1880, and J.D. Dana, one of the journal's editors and a famous geologist, who didn't always believe the testimony of the eyewitness. For instance, after Dana published Reverend Coan's graphic and detailed description of the source and flows of Mauna Loa's 1843 eruption, Dana followed with "Mr. Coan speaks of the lavas as flowing from an orifice in a broad stream down the mountain. It is probable that fissures opening to the fires below were continued at intervals along the course of the eruption, and that these afforded accession to the fiery flood. Any internal force sufficient to break through the sides of a mountain like Mauna Loa, must necessarily produce a linear fissure or a series of fissures, and not a single tunnel-like opening." (Dana, 1852, p. 256; see also Dana, 1850; T. Coan, 1871, 1882; L. Coan, 1884.)

Arguments such as this could only be resolved by volcanologists doing the observing, but they served to publicize the need for further study. The Coan-Dana controversy helped raise questions that needed to be answered about volcanoes, thus helping pave the way for such institutions as the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

When a hotel on the rim of Kilauea caldera became a permanent facility in 1866, its series of guest registers became a repository of reports and observations by the guests, an almost daily record (by observers who varied from the scientist to the joker) of earthquakes felt and unfelt and of volcanism seen and unseen on Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Both Brigham (1909) and Hitchcock (1911) mined the more reliable reports from the Volcano House guest registers, quoting them along with observations from their own visits and reports from many additional sources to yield histories of both volcanoes, comprehensive up to their dates of publication.

Brigham, a scientist who once taught botany at Harvard and also practiced law in Boston, was by 1898 the Director of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Hitchcock was a geologist, a member of a prominent Hilo family, and by 1909 was retired as Emeritus Professor of Geology at Dartmouth College. Both Brigham and Hitchcock kept up with the comings and goings of scientists interested in the Big Island volcanoes.

Brigham (1909, p. 216) notes that in the spring of 1909 the "well-known professors in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, T.A. Jaggar, Jr., and R.A. Daly," visited Kilauea, and that Jaggar and Daly were "interested in the establishment of a permanent observatory at Kilauea, a result so ardently hoped for many years and frequently referred to in these pages."

Hitchcock (1911, p. 306) applauds Brigham's recommendation that a "permanent scientific observatory be established at Kilauea, where notes may be taken with the best instruments, of earthquakes, the diurnal changes of the dome of Halemaumau, the temperatures of the molten lava and steam jets, the analysis of ejecta and spectroscopic investigations."

While arguments on behalf of more formal scientific investigations in Hawaii were being presented, the public had been well prepared by press reports of devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions around the world, especially the eruption of Mont Pelé in 1902 and the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

In the hope that science could close the gaps in geological knowledge and learn to predict earthquakes and eruptions, some New Englanders were willing for humanitarian reasons to finance foreign trips and support work abroad for scientists. For instance, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Volcanic Research Society supported, at least in part, the travels and studies of Frank A. Perret, an electrical engineer and inventor turned volcanologist who became well known for his studies at Vesuvius, Etna, and Stromboli. The Springfield society also helped support Perret's 1911 work at Kilauea (Wentworth and Powers, 1962; Macdonald, 1972).
It was in this climate of opinion that the trustees of the estates of Edward and Caroline Whitney gave to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the sum of $25,000 for a memorial fund; the principal and interest were to be expended at M.I.T's discretion for research or teaching in geophysics, especially seismology, "with a view to the protection of human life and property" (Jaggar, 1917a). Investigations in Hawaii were recommended. The Whitney fund was deeded to M.I.T by the trustees on July 1, 1909, and three years later a group of twelve other New Englanders supplied M.I.T. with supplemental funds for geophysical research in Hawaii (Jaggar, 1917a).

Even before the Whitney gift, M.I.T had been searching for a suitable site for full-time, resident study of volcanoes and earthquakes. Professor Thomas A. Jaggar, Jr., had investigated sites in Italy, the Caribbean, and Alaska. At private expense, both Jaggar and Professor Daly visited Kilauea in 1909. Jaggar went on to Japan; Daly stayed to study the action in Kilauea caldera (Daly,1911). In Japan, Jaggar investigated two volcanoes in eruption and studied the Japanese seismometer network, then the world's most advanced. He became a lifelong friend of Professor F. Omori, famed Japanese seismologist.

After what he termed "mature deliberation," Jaggar chose Kilauea for M.I.T's volcano observatory. He gave M.I.T eight reasons for his choice: (1) Kilauea was the safest known volcano in the world; (2) Kilauea and Mauna Loa were isolated, more than 3,000 km (2,000 mi) away from complications other volcanic centers might impose; (3) Kilauea was reasonably accessible?it could be reached by a 50-km (30-mi) road from Hilo harbor or a day's sail from Honolulu; (4) the central Pacific was good for recording distant earthquakes and was served by good transportation east or west; (5) the climate was uniform, with air clear enough for astronomy; (6) small earthquakes were frequent and easily studied; (7) hot and cold underground waters were available for both agricultural and scientific purposes; (8) "The territory is American, and these volcanoes are famous in the history of science for their remarkably liquid lavas and nearly continuous activity" (Jaggar, 1917a, p. 2).

Jaggar stopped in Honolulu twice in 1909; obviously aware of funds to be forthcoming from the Whitney Fund and sure of support from M.I.T for an observatory at Kilauea, he sought added patronage in Honolulu. Jaggar gave lectures and met with the Chamber of Commerce, the Bishop Museum, and key businessmen. Guiding him through the interlocking directorships of the Hawaiian business community and introducing him into its parallel island society network was Honolulu businessman Lorrin A. Thurston, who headed, among other things, the Hawaiian Promotion Committee, forerunner of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. Thurston and Jaggar became close friends.


Thomas Augustus Jaggar (1871?1953) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son of an Episcopal Bishop. He obtained three geology degrees from Harvard (A.B., A.M., and Ph.D.), studied in Munich and Heidelberg, and then began teaching at Harvard. Jaggar was one of the scientists sent by the U.S. Government in 1902 to investigate the volcanic disasters at Soufrière and Mont Pelé. His experiences there led him to devote his career to active volcanoes and related geophysics. In 1906, already a much-published, respected, well-known geologist, writer, and lecturer, he became head of M.I.T's department of geology. Jaggar saw the need for full-time, on-site study of volcanoes. He had long deplored that to date, especially in America, it was only after news of an eruption was received that geologists rushed from academic centers to study volcanism. There was generally no trained observer there beforehand, and scientists from afar often arrived after the eruption was over. There was then only one volcano observatory in the world, that at Vesuvius established in 1847. Jaggar thought America needed one (Jaggar, 1910; Macdonald, 1972; Bullard, 1975; Day, 1984).

Lorrin Andrews Thurston (1858?1931) was born in Honolulu, grandson of one of the pioneer missionaries from New England. He studied law at Columbia University and became a member of the Honolulu bar. In the Kingdom of Hawaii, Thurston served in both elected and appointed positions, but he was a leader in the revolution (January 17, 1893) that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and ended the native monarchy. The very next day Thurston sailed from Honolulu for Washington, D.C., to serve the "Provisional Government," which he helped establish, as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. He stayed for two years and paved the way for annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898. In his business life he developed sugar plantations and railroads, brought the first electric street cars to Honolulu, and was the major stockholder in the Volcano House on the rim of Kilauea caldera. Being a volcano buff, he often visited Kilauea and frequently brought officials and delegations from the United States to see the volcano from the porch of his Volcano House. In 1900, Thurston became publisher of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, a Honolulu daily newspaper (still today under the management of a descendant). Not only did he promote a volcano observatory for Kilauea, but he also wished to make Kilauea a U.S. national park (Day, 1984). Thurston had a powerful influence because of his family connections and the many positions he held, and his support for HVO in its early years was invaluable.


This historical sketch is the product not only of a search of the literature but also of numerous discussions, conversations, and interviews with volcanologists, staff of HVO, and others with knowledge of the subject. In particular, I wish to thank R.W. Decker, R.Y. Koyanagi, B.J. Loucks, and Reginald Okamura for freely sharing their experiences and knowledge of HVO history. I am grateful to R.W. Decker and T.L. Wright for helpful reviews of the paper and to Barbara Decker and P.H. Stauffer for helping to put this manuscript into its final form.

skip past historical sketch links BEGINNINGS OF THE OBSERVATORY

PIONEERING, 1912-1953










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Updated: 4 January, 2005 (pnf)