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Volcano Watch: The Founding of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Frank Perret (left) and Thomas Jaggar examine Cone Crater, Kilauea southwest rift zone, during a return visit by Perret in 1914. (Photo courtesy of HVO)

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), we have realized that, while 1912 has long been recognized as the year HVO was established, the actual founding date is not clear.

There was no ribbon-cutting ceremony or “grand opening” celebration to mark the occasion.

We know that HVO’s origin began in 1909 and that it was fully established by July 1912. But, the question of when HVO was actually founded remains. To answer it, we look back at when it all started.

In April 1909, Thomas A. Jaggar, Jr., was traveling to Japan to learn how its scientists monitor volcanoes. On the way, he stopped in Honolulu, where he delivered a speech on the need for careful and systematic study of volcanoes.

He said that “no better place could be found for it than … close to the crater of Kilauea.”

He also extolled the accomplishments of American scientist, Frank A. Perret, so successful at studying Italian volcanoes and forecasting their behavior that the Crown of Italy decorated him “for his splendid service to science and humanity.”

While in Honolulu, Jaggar spoke with Lorrin A. Thurston, who mentioned that establishing an observatory at Kilauea had been discussed locally for many years. Thurston and other local businessmen promised to raise money in support.

So, as early as April 1909, HVO’s founding was underway. It was a “twinkle in the eye,” but not yet a certainty.

Jaggar had difficulty getting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to allow the funds, set aside to establish an earth observatory in Massachusetts, to be spent in Hawaii. But by October 1910, he had found a way to purchase specialized equipment and have it shipped to Honolulu in anticipation of starting his work.

The “Jaggar plan” was in motion.

In January 1911, Frank Perret travelled from Italy to Boston, where he delivered lectures and met with Jaggar to discuss the latter’s “Hawaiian plan.” Jaggar had been trying (unsuccessfully) to get back to Hawaii since 1909 — He knew that a “demonstration” of his plans and intentions was needed to sustain the interest of his Honolulu supporters. Perret promised to go to Hawaii that summer (1911), even after Jaggar backed out.

Frank Perret, the most famous volcanologist of that time, arrived July 2, 191 at the edge of Kilauea caldera. During their first week, he began observing the lava lake within Halemaumau Crater, stretching a 1200-ft cable across the crater, and constructing a hut for observers and instruments at the eastern edge of the crater.

By the end of July, the temperature of molten lava was measured with sensors lowered from the cable – a first. The “Technology Station,” named after its sponsor, MIT, was completed, and immediately occupied. Perret had indeed set Jaggar’s vision in motion, but HVO had not yet been founded.

The date of Jaggar’s arrival kept slipping, and, eventually, Perret felt he had to return to his beloved Italy. So, unfortunately, the careful, continuous observations of Halemaumau activity, recorded by Perret, were interrupted for several months at the end of 1911.

Jaggar finally arrived Jan. 17, 1912 at the Volcano House hotel. That afternoon, he resumed observations and documentation of the active lava lake in Halemaumau. Thus began the continuous record of volcanic activity, which was one of Jaggar’s goals for an observatory.

Because that basis of the observatory was solidly established on this date, it is often cited as the founding of HVO.

But there is another interpretation on the start of HVO. John Dvorak, a former HVO staff scientist who has spent years researching Jaggar, reports HVO was founded when Jaggar received his first paycheck July 1, 1912.

Dvorak has written an excellent article on HVO’s beginnings, which can be accessed at

No matter how one defines HVO’s founding, or what date is chosen, it’s clear that it occurred some time between July 2, 1911 (Perret’s arrival), and July 1, 1912 (Jaggar’s first paycheck).

HVO’s current staff will begin the celebration of the observatory’s 100th anniversary in January 2012 and continue it throughout the year. Information about events and activities will be posted in local newspapers and on the HVO Web site.

Stay tuned for an exciting centennial year.

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