The Mallet-Milne Lecture

Robert Mallet and John Milne

The biennial Mallet-Milne lecture is organised by SECED in memory of the two founding fathers of engineering seismology: Robert Mallet and John Milne. It is somewhat ironic that two men widely credited with instigating the scientific study of earthquakes should come from Britain and Ireland, an area of low seismicity in world terms. Both Mallet and Milne were relatively unknown in their homeland, yet were held in high esteem in Italy and Japan, respectively, where they made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of earthquakes.

Robert Mallet (1810-1881) was born in Dublin. He graduated in Science and Mathematics from Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of 20. He spent his early career working in his father’s foundry business, supplying iron work for construction projects throughout Ireland. Later Mallet’s interests turned to geology and earthquakes, and he applied his knowledge of mechanics to the interpretation of the earth’s movements. In 1835 he enrolled in the British Association for the Advancement of Science which helped to fund much of his research in seismology, publishing On the Dynamics of Earthquakes in 1848 and, with the help of his son, The Earthquake Catalogue of the British Association in 1858, both of which were seminal publications. Following the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857 he travelled to Padula in Italy to study at first hand the devastation of that event. Such were his pioneering skills, he produced for the first time a map showing isoseismal lines to record the severity of the earthquake experienced in different areas, and used the relatively new invention of photography to record the damage – a first in scientific research. The results of his detailed research in Italy were documented in the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: the First Principles of Observational Seismology, published as two volumes in 1862. The publication would come to be considered as a classic work in seismology, and cement Robert Mallet’s place in Italian seismological history.

John Milne (1850-1913) was born in Liverpool. He enjoyed an eventful career quite unlike that of any of his peers. He studied at Kings College, London and the Royal School of Mines, and following an early career as a mining engineer, was appointed, at the age of 25, as Professor of Mining and Geology at the Imperial University of Tokyo. Following the Yokohama Earthquake of 1880 his attention was drawn to the study of earthquakes, with a view to saving life and property. Milne had an active career in seismology in Japan and was instrumental in establishing the serious scientific study of earthquakes. He is generally credited with the invention of the horizontal pendulum seismograph and producing the first codes of practice for civil engineers in seismic regions. Along with Sir James Alfred Ewing and Thomas Gray (two other British scientists working in Japan) he founded the Seismological Society of Japan in 1880. On leaving Japan in 1895, Milne was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun from the Meiji Emperor, an honour rarely awarded to a foreigner. On his return to the UK, Milne established an observatory at his home in Shide on the Isle of Wight, where he continued his scientific studies. He went on to establish the first global network of seismograph stations under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Robert Mallet John Milne

The Mallet-Milne lectures

The aim of the Mallet-Milne lecture series is to capture a lifetime of experience from eminent professionals who have spent their careers working in the field of seismology or earthquake engineering, giving them a platform to pass on those key elements that have characterised and formulated a distinguished career. The quality and variety of the lectures over the course of the series has achieved this objective handsomely with the subject matter covering the full range of specialisms that make up the broad disciplines of seismology and earthquake engineering whilst the geographical diversity of the speakers has ensured that experience has been drawn from across the globe.

The first fifteen Mallet-Milne lectures – a thematic summary

Seismology and seismic hazard assessment

Four of the lectures in the series have been dedicated to seismology and seismic hazard assessment. In the first Mallet-Milne lecture (in 1987) entitled Engineering Seismology, Professor Nicholas Ambraseys of Imperial College, London, described a new approach to the assessment of liquefaction potential and re-evaluation of twentieth century seismicity in Turkey. In the lecture Professor Ambaseys emphasised the importance of field observations and measurements to provide data for proper earthquake risk management. In the fifth Mallet-Milne lecture, From Earthquake Acceleration to Seismic Displacement, Professor Bruce Bolt of the University of California at Berkeley discussed the destructive nature of near-field ground motions containing high energy pulses. In the eighth Mallet-Milne lecture Living With Earthquakes: Know Your Faults, Dr. James Jackson of Cambridge University addressed the identification and characterisation of active geological faults. Dr. Jackson illustrated the advances made in the determination of source parameters for earthquakes, in the understanding of the relationship between crustal deformations and geomorphology and in the developments of technology for measuring the deformation of the earth’s surface. In the thirteenth lecture in the series, The Practice of Earthquake Geology: Career-Changing Events and Life Stories, Lloyd Clough of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, California, related a lifetime of field reconnaissance studies and developing seismic hazard techniques and risk assessments for critical facilities around the world, including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Aswan Dam and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Finally, in the fourteenth Mallet-Milne lecture, Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey gave a remarkable overview of the contribution of British seismologists and engineers to the study of earthquakes in A History of British Seismology, which was particularly fitting as it coincided with the centenary of John Milne’s death in 1913.

Geotechnical earthquake engineering

Once the seismology and seismic hazard have been addressed the engineer has to understand the local ground response, foundation behaviour and the potential for soil-structure interaction. Two of the Mallet–Milne speakers have addressed these issues. In the seventh Mallet-Milne lecture, The Road to Total Earthquake Safety, Professor Cinna Lomnitz of the National Autonomous University of Mexico addressed the dynamics of seismic wave propagation, the response of soft soils and the coupling of ground response with structural response. The tenth Mallet-Milne lecture, A Study of Piles During Earthquakes: Issues of Design and Analysis, was presented by W.D Liam Finn, Anabuki Professor of Foundation Geodynamics, Kagawa University, Japan and Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. Professor Finn presented a critical overview of engineering practice for evaluating the response of pile foundations during earthquakes.

Structural response

Four of the Mallet-Milne speakers have addressed various issues associated with the structural response of buildings subject to seismic excitation. In the third Mallet-Milne lecture, Reduction of Vibrations, Professor Geoffrey Warburton of Nottingham University illustrated how the hazard, hence the risk, can be mitigated by engineering intervention through the application of dampers, base isolation and active control to limit the forces on structures subjected to earthquake loading. The fourth Mallet-Milne lecture entitled Simplicity and Confidence in Seismic Design was delivered by Professor Tom Paulay of the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. He used his extensive design experience to address the concepts that can be employed to ensure the predictable seismic response of reinforced concrete buildings. Explicit rules aimed at “telling the structure how to behave” were presented in a comprehensive fashion. The issue of expected and actual behaviour of buildings was revisited in the Sixth Mallet-Milne lecture in 1997. Professor Roy Severn of the University of Bristol presented Structural Response Prediction Using Experimental Data, drawing on his lifetime experience in the dynamic testing of large structures around the world and the application of the results to earthquake engineering. In the ninth lecture in the series Nigel Priestley, Emeritus Professor of Structural Engineering of the University of California at San Diego, and co-director of the Rose School in Italy, presented Revisiting Myths and Fallacies in Earthquake Engineering. In the lecture he examined the fundamental principles for the seismic design of structures and concluded that in many cases, current practices, often embodied in design codes, were based on unrealistic concepts and approximations. In preference, he outlined progress towards the development of simple and rational seismic design procedures based on displacement rather than strength considerations.

Societal contexts and risk assessments

Earthquakes can of course have devastating effects on societies across the world and three of the Mallet-Milne lecturers have presented an holistic view of the risks involved. In the second Mallet-Milne lecture, Coping With Natural Disasters, Professor George Housner of the California Institute of Technology addressed the challenges and perspectives of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He considered not only seismic hazards, but also other natural events like floods, windstorms and wildfires, and addressed the need for improved communication of risks including information exchange, warning systems and education programmes. In the eleventh Mallet-Milne lecture, Saving Lives in Earthquakes: Successes and Failures in Seismic Protection from 1960, Professor Robin Spence of Cambridge University took a broad view of the extent to which earthquake risks to human life have been reduced. He presented a retrospective on almost half a century of statistics on earthquake casualties, disruption and costs, and made some important observations on changing attitudes towards earthquake risk. In the twelfth Mallet-Milne lecture, The Seismic Future of Cities, Dr Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado, Boulder, looked forward to the projected doubling of the earth’s population in the next half century. He predicted that earthquakes with large return periods that had little impact on villages and towns in the past would in future be shaking urban agglomerations housing upward of 12 million people. The incorporation of earthquake resistant structures in the development of these megacities was therefore of increasing importance, placing a significant responsibility on the future generations of earthquake engineers to exercise their skill not only from a technical perspective, but from a political one as well. The fifteenth Mallet-Milne lecture built upon the themes of the eleventh and twelfth lectures: in Earthquake Safety in India: Achievements, Challenges and Opportunities, Professor Sudhir K. Jain, Director of the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, gave a comprehensive overview of both those measures that have already been taken, and those that are still urgently needed, to reduce the seismic risk in the heavily populated areas of India. Whilst the focus of Professor Jain's lecture was on the Indian sub-continent, the message remains widely applicable across large parts of the developing world.

Lecture publications

The Mallet-Milne lecture was traditionally published in hardcopy format (for access, contact the ICE Library). Since 2013 the lecture has also been published as an open-access publication, which means that it is free to download (follow the links in the chronological overview). We at SECED hope that the open-access availability will increase the readership and dissemination of knowledge worldwide. Together with the previous Mallet-Milne lectures we are confident that this will prove to be a valuable resource for seismologists and earthquake engineers for years to come.


This article was adopted from Dr Andrew Mair's paper on The Fourteenth Mallet-Milne Lecture (Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering, 11:711-714, 2013), and Andy Campbell's paper on The Fifteenth Mallet-Milne Lecture (Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering, 14:1333-1336, 2016).