Beno Gutenberg (1889–1960)

gutenbergBeno Gutenberg was born in Darmstadt, Germany, on June 4, 1889. He completed all of his university education at the University of Göttingen, receiving his Ph.D. there in 1911. As a student, he chose geophysics as his field of endeavor and joined the Geophysical Institute, newly established by Emil Wiechert, a pioneer in the emerging science of seismology. His dissertation was on microseisms, a topic he returned to in the latter years of World War II when he attempted to use them to track hurricanes and typhoons in the western Pacific.

After earning his Ph.D., Gutenberg turned his attention to the Earth’s interior, basing his early research on the seismographic material that Wiechert had assembled for studying the Earth’s deep structure. In the best known of his early work he made the first correct determination of the radius of the Earth’s core, a study completed in 1913.

In 1913 he joined the German University of Strasbourg, which was then the headquarters of the International Seismological Association. He then spent a period of service with the Meteorological Service of the German army during World War I, followed by a professorship at the University of Frankfurt-am-Main. Because his university salary in the latter position was insufficient for support, he supplemented his income by employment as a factory executive. During this time he published many important research papers and contributed to, and edited, handbooks on geophysical topics. Of these, the best known are the volumes of Handbuch der Geophysik that he edited, and to which he made several contributions.

Gutenberg visited Pasadena in 1929 to participate in a conference to plan future directions for the Seismological Laboratory, then under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He joined the laboratory in 1930 and, at the same time, became a Professor of Geophysics at the California Institute of Technology. The Seismological Laboratory became part of Caltech in 1936 while under the directorship of H.O. Wood. A disabling illness forced Wood to retire in 1947, and Gutenberg succeeded him as director. Under his leadership the laboratory became a leading center for deep Earth and earthquake studies, a role that has continued under the leadership of later directors.

Gutenberg’s years at Caltech were marked by exceptional research productivity. With Charles Richter, he published a series of papers titled “On seismic waves” between 1931 and 1939. These papers provided some of the basic information on travel times of several seismic phases, information that several researchers used to derive velocity models of the Earth’s mantle and core. During this time, Gutenberg’s observational abilities led him to infer a low-velocity zone in the upper mantle, a feature that is still associated with his name.

Gutenberg and Richter published Seismicity of the Earth in 1941. The geographical patterns of earthquakes established in this book provided some of the basic information used by later Earth scientists who developed the theory of plate tectonics. Gutenberg and Richter also collaborated on the development of various magnitude scales using seismic waves of different types so that observers could assign magnitudes to earthquakes that have both shallow and deep foci and occur at various epicentral distances. Gutenberg summarized many of his views on earthquakes and the physics of the Earth’s internal structure in the book Physics of the Earth’s Interior, published in 1959. In addition, he published two other major books and almost 300 scientific articles during his career.

In spite of his unabated research activity and the time required to direct the Seismological Laboratory, Gutenberg still found time to take part in many professional organizations, often assuming a leadership role. He chaired many committees and sections in the International Union for Geodesy and Geophysics, served on the Board of Directors and as President of the Seismological Society of America, and was a foreign member of the Academia dei Lance and the Royal Society of New Zealand.

He received many scientific honors, including election to the National Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 1933, the Lagrange Prize of the Royal Belgian Academy in 1950, the Wiechert Medal of the Deutsche Geophysikalische Gegellschaft, and an honorary degree from the University of Uppsala in 1955.

Gutenberg retired from Caltech in 1958 but continued to be active in some professional organizations and in research. He had to cease his work, however, when he contracted a virulent form of influenza in early 1960. It developed into a fatal pneumonia, and he died a few days later on January 25, 1960.

—Brian J. Mitchell

Saint Louis University
St. Louis, Missouri