The Ferndale Museum

History is Our StoryThe Bosch-Omori Seismograph

(Jerry Lema and Rob Roberts with
the Bosch-Omori seismograph)

History of the Ferndale Seismograph

By Paul R. Smith, Dec. 2009

The seismograph in Ferndale was first operated by Joseph Jordan Bognuda(1). Joe was a store owner and did not have a formal education in seismology, but had a very sharp mind and an intense interest in studying geology and earth movements. Bognuda had been interested in earthquakes since the 1906 earthquake had caused widespread damage to the area.  In the early 1920s, he built a seismograph out of a tomato can and some other improvised materials connected to batteries.

In 1932 scientists at the University of California in Berkeley, having learned about Bognuda’s activities, made arrangements for him to operate a seismograph station, which they planned to locate in Humboldt County.  At that time, the seismology department at UC Berkeley was establishing a network of seismographs and needed a recorder in far northwestern California because it was known that this area had a high number of seismic events. These were Bosch-Omori instruments, which were developed by Professor Fusakichi Omori of Japan and Dr. J.A. Bosch of Germany, and were and built by the firm of J.A. Bosch, of Strasburg, Germany.  These seismographs were used at several sites around the world in the early twentieth century.

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Every morning the Bosch-Omori seismograph, housed at the Ferndale Museum, is checked for earthquake recordings and reset.  Jerry Lema and Rob Roberts currently maintain the seismograph, and are always willing to train back-up volunteers. If you are interested in learning more about the seismograph, please contact Rob.

Bognuda and Horace Winslow of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey assembled and installed the two instruments in the old city jail, which was located in the Ferndale Fire Department building.  Final installation was on January 25, 1933. The two instruments were located on cement piers, which were isolated from the building structure so they would not be affected by the swaying of the building during a seismic event.

After studying the recording from these seismographs, scientists were at a loss to explain vibrations being recorded by these instruments when no earthquakes were happening, and they thought maybe they were the reception of distant shocks.  Joe Bognuda gained international notoriety in scientific circles when he discovered that these non-earthquake-related vibrations were caused by extremely heavy surf on the California coast.

In the 1950s, UC Berkeley no longer had need for the Bosch-Omori seismographs because they were outdated, and they gave the seismographs to the city of Ferndale.

Sometime in the mid to late 1960’s, Joe asked Ron Smith (2) and Jim Scalvini (3) to take over operation of the seismographs, which they did.  The record on the seismographs needs to be changed every 24 hours, so one of these two men had to find time each day to attend to this equipment. The two men were business partners in a television store in Ferndale called Smith and Scalvini, so working together enabled them to coordinate their volunteer work on the seismographs. 

At the time, Humboldt State didn’t have any seismic experts, and Ron and Jim operated the only seismograph in the county.  When there was a large tremor, the media would call one of these two men to find out the location and intensity of the earthquake. Ron said he recalls once that KGO, the large television and radio station in San Francisco, called him at 2 a.m. to gather details after a large earthquake. 

Ron said he became very accurate at judging the intensity. If the quake was very big, then the needle was shaken off the recording-drum and the recording stopped, so Ron and Jim used the amount of shaking they personally felt as well as the amount of damage reported, to help make their estimate of the intensity.

There are two seismographs, one oriented east-west and the other located north-south. Judging the relative intensity that was recorded by each instrument, the approximate direction could be estimated. The duration of the “P” (primary or compression wave) before the appearance of the “S” (shear or transverse wave) was used to estimate the distance of the quake epicenter from the seismograph station. The Smith family also had a light that hung on a chain in the kitchen and the direction it was swinging was also used as an indication of the direction. A map showing the location of the major faults in the area was used as a guide since the epicenters typically occurred along known faults.

Ron said he felt he was accurate on estimating the intensity within one-tenth of a point on the Richter Scale. He said that UC Berkeley would broadcast their estimate of the intensity after he had announced his and he was typically within 0.1 of what they announced. UC Berkeley had three strong motion detectors located in the county, which only recorded when there was significant ground shaking. These were located at Arcata, Fickle Hill (12 miles east of Eureka), and in the Ferndale Fire Station.

If the Bosch-Omori seismographs were damaged by a large earthquake, Ron or Jim would try to quickly repair them so the “aftershocks” could be recorded. Ron said the needle would sometimes be severely bent or broken. He said he made replacements using his soldering iron and women’s bobby pins (hairpins), which were just the right width. 

In mid-1974, a 16-station array of seismographs were installed in the north coast region and operated by Robert “Bob” McPherson of TERA Corporation as part of a seismic safety study for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant. During its 12 years of operation, the network provided “real-time” information via phone lines to McPherson’s office located in Eureka. Throughout that time, Ron and Jim often contacted McPherson after a major earthquake to gather information on the location and depth of the epicenter.

David Anderson(4) helped Ron and Jim operate the seismographs in the early and mid-1970s. Ron called David by a nickname, “Shaky,” because of his work on the seismograph. Ralph Mathes(5) helped Ron and Jim operate the seismographs in the late-1970s. In the early 1980s, Ron decided to no longer help monitor the seismographs, but Jim Scalvini continued.

In the early 1980s the Ferndale Fire Department desired to have the seismographs moved out of their building because they needed more room, and asked Ron and Jim to relocate the seismograph station. Ron contacted a professor at Humboldt State to help him find a suitable location.  It had been suggested that the Ferndale City Hall (located at the Village Club building) would be appropriate. The professor had a portable seismograph, and it showed that this location had an unacceptable amount of vibration from passing heavy trucks. They tried some other locations and ultimately found that the museum location didn’t have a problem with vibrations, and so it was decided that this is where the seismographs should be located. This location was ideal because museum visitors could easily view the equipment.


(1) Joseph Jordan Bognuda was born in Vacaville on Oct. 2, 1889. His family moved to Humboldt County when he was at a young age. He bought the Red Front Store in 1923 and managed it for many years. He never married. He was an active member of the Seismological Society of America. He died in Fortuna on January 7, 1979.

(2) Ronald V. Smith was born in 1926 and has lived in Ferndale most of his life. His parents were Simon and Dora Rasmussen Smith. Ron still resides in Ferndale with his wife, Arleen. Ron’s son, Paul, compiled this history.

(3) James J. Scalvini was born June 28, 1921. His parents were Rocco and Giustina Scalvini. His parents were immigrants from Italy, and I recall his mother spoke very little English. They operated a dairy located just north of Ferndale along Highway 211 near the Salt River Bridge. His brothers were Rocco (who owned a liquor store in Ferndale) and Lino (who was mentally disabled). Jim married Mary Meister on June 21, 1965. She was a widow with several children. Jim died Aug 5, 2005.

(4) David Anderson was born ~1950 and grew up in Ferndale. His parents are George and Dorothy Anderson, who were probably charter members of the Museum and possibly George did carpentry work during the museum’s initial construction. David now resides in Washington State and still occasionally visits Ferndale.

(5) Ralph Mathes was born in 1957. His parents are Chris Mathes (now deceased) and Linda Mathes (current resident of Ferndale). Chris owned and operated Mathes Jewelers in Ferndale for many years. Ralph now resides in Chico.

Ron Smith and Jim Scalvini, Seismograph, 1970
(1970 clipping, Ron Smith and Jim Scalvini with Seismograph)

Sources of Information:

  1. Where the Ferns Grew Tall. p. 313-314.
  2. Humboldt Historian, Winter 2009, p. 46
  3. Interview with Ron V. Smith, Dec 2009, by his son, Paul R. Smith
  4. “Sources of North Coast Seismicity” by Dengler, Carver, and McPherson. In California Geology, Mar/April 1992. A publication by the California Division of Mines and Geology (available online; search by title).
  5. Images of America: Ferndale. P. 113
  6. Google search of Bosch-Omori seismographs.
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