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Invention of the Seismoscope

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Invention of the Seismoscope

Early Chinese Seismoscope

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Humans and other animals alike have always been shocked and terrified by earthquakes. There are few feelings more disconcerting than the sensation of the seemingly-solid earth suddenly rolling and pitching beneath one's feet.

Although we still can't accurately predict earthquakes, we as a species have come a long way in detecting, recording, and measuring seismic shocks. This process began nearly 2000 years ago, with the invention of the first seismoscope.

In 132 CE., a Chinese inventor called Zhang Heng displayed his amazing earthquake-detection machine, or seismoscope, at the court of the Han Dynasty. Zhang's seismoscope was a giant bronze vessel, resembling a samovar almost 6 feet in diameter. Eight dragons snaked face-down along the outside of the barrel, marking the primary compass directions. In each dragon's mouth was a small bronze ball. Beneath the dragons sat eight bronze toads, with their broad mouths gaping to receive the balls.

The exact mechanism that caused a ball to drop in the event of an earthquake is not known. One theory is that a thin stick was set loosely down the center of the barrel. An earthquake would cause the stick to topple over in the direction of the seismic shock, triggering one of the dragons to open its mouth and release the bronze ball. The sound of the ball striking the toad's mouth would alert observers to the earthquake. This would give a rough indication of the earthquake's direction of origin, but it did not provide any information about the intensity of the tremors.

The first seismoscope was only one of the amazing technological advances made by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Others included the invention of paper, the first forged steel, and the creation of the "armillary sphere," a device somewhat like a globe that depicted the movement of planets and stars through the night sky.

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