Beno Gutenberg

by Jeff McPherson

GO 521: History of Geology

Earth Science Department

Emporia State University

Table of Contents

-Introduction: The Early Life of Beno Gutenberg

-A Brush with the Military

-The End of World War I Sends Gutenberg Home

-An Opportunity in the U.S. leads Gutenberg to California

-Overview and Summary of a Successful Career in Seismology

-Introduction: The Early Life of Beno Gutenberg

Beno Gutenberg is seen by many as a man who laid the foundation for the science of geophysics.  The countless papers and books he published on the subject proved that he truly did help to advance this science into what it is today.  He was born on June 4, 1889, in Darmstadt, Germany.  As a boy Gutenberg loved science.  Early in his life he was interested in meteorology among other disciplines.  He continued these interests at a University called Technische Hochschule in his hometown of Darmstadt, the year was 1907.  After only one year of study here Gutenberg heard about a Geophysics course being offered at the University of Gottingen, so in 1907 that is where he went.(Sharp)

Under the instruction of Emil Wiechert the University of Gottingen was the first place that Gutenberg learned of Seismology.  He spent three years here learning of seismographs, terrestrial magnetism, tides, geodesy, physics, mathematics, elasticity, and meteorology.  When the three years was up Gutenberg began work on his thesis.  His thesis was on microseisms, small seismic vibrations that are continuous.  His thesis was very well received by his professors and he was granted his Ph.D in philosophy with a major in geophysics and a minor in geometry.  After receiving his doctorate he remained at the University, during this time in his life he began to shift his emphasis towards the interior of the earth.  Using the knowledge that he had obtained on seismology and the past studies that were done at the university, Gutenberg was able to look at the seismic waves and determine what he believed the radius of the earth’s core was and that it was made up of iron.



-A Brush with the Military

In 1912 Gutenberg spent only a year with the military.  Upon leaving the military in October 1913 he took a job for the Central Bureau of the International Association of Seismology in Strassburg.  After less than a year on the job, in August of 1914, World War I would call Gutenberg back to the military.  During this time he was assigned to train military officers.  He could no longer serve in the infantry because a grenade caused a head injury shortly after he was called back to the military.  Gutenberg did this for two years, and then decided it was time for a change.  In 1916 he took a post in Berlin for the weather forecasting service.  During this time he continued to use any free time he had to study seismology and to continue to further his research on the topic. 


-The End of World War I Sends Gutenberg Home

After the war ended Gutenberg was unable to find any work in his field.  He returned to his hometown of Darmstadt and in 1918 began to work at the family business, which was a soap factory that his father had started.  This was not what Gutenberg wanted but his brother who had worked at the factory was killed in the war and his father was in desperate need of help.  During this time whenever he had a free moment on the evenings or weekends Gutenberg was working on his geophysics research.  He studied the thickness of the earth’s mantle on the continents compared to under the oceans.  This would lead to Gutenberg creating his own theory of side to side movement of the earth’s crust.  He also studied the density composition of the earth at this time.  Gutenberg did all this while still working at the factory.(Knopoff)


-An Opportunity in the U.S. Leads Gutenberg to California

In 1924 Guttenberg was given the opportunity to be a lecturer at the University of Frankfort.  After three years of lecturing and working at the factory, in 1927 Gutenberg’s father died, leaving him to run the business and continue to do his lectures.  At this time he was given the opportunity to travel to Pasadena with a group of scientists for a conference on plans for the seismologic laboratory there.  Here he made connections that lead to a job opportunity at the California Institute of Technology.  In 1930 Gutenberg accepted the position of the professor of geophysics and meteorology at the University, as well as a seat at the seismological laboratory in Pasadena.  During his years at Caltech he had a tremendous impact on the seismological program.  He attracted many new students and professors to the university, due to his groundbreaking work in the seismic field.  In 1935 he was appointed head of the Seismological Laboratory because the previous head, Wood, had been inflicted with a serious illness and could not continue.(Mitchell)


-Overview and Summary of a Successful Career in Seismology

He and fellow seismologist, Charles Richter, worked together to produce a series of papers regarding the travel times of several seismic phases, entitled, On Seismic Waves.  The two researchers also collaborated on another study on the geologic patterns of earthquakes, entitled, Seismicity in the Earth.  These papers would prove to be very beneficial to future researchers, as would the majority of Gutenberg’s work.  During his career he wrote and had published, close to 300 articles and 3 books.

Over his vastly successful career Gutenberg was a member of many professional organizations other than just being a professor at Caltech.  He was the Chairperson for many committees of the International Union for Geodesy and Geophysics, he was the President of the Seismological Society of America, and he was also a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand.  With his body of work it was no wonder everyone wanted his input.  He was recognized with many scientific awards over his career, among them; the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union, the Lagrange Prize of the Royal Belgian Academy, the Wiechert Medal of the Deutshe Geophysikalische Gegellschaft, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Gutenberg died January 25, 1960, from pneumonia.  Needless to say he was a key player in the understanding of how we can use seismic waves to benefit scientific research.  Many of his findings early in his career were building blocks for all future seismologists to use and learn from.(Knopoff) 

Works Cited

Mitchell, Brian J. Beno Gutenberg (1889-1860). Saint Louis University. 25 Oct. 2003 <>.

Beno Gutenberg. European Geophysical Society. 25 Oct. 2003 <>.

Knopoff, Leon. Beno Gutenberg. National Academy of Sciences. 25 Oct. 2003 <>.

Sharp, Robert A. A Tribute to Beno Gutenberg. 25 Oct. 2003 <>.