Remembering Thomas Jaggar, founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Remembering Hawaii

On January 17th, 1953, founder of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory Thomas Jaggar died. He was 81 years old, a week shy of his 82nd birthday.

Jaggar was born in Philadelphia in 1871, and from a young age was fascinated by the outdoors. An avid hiker, he took a trip to Mt. Vesuvius as a young man and decided then to study earth sciences. He would eventually get his PhD in geology from Harvard in 1897.

By 1906, Jaggar was the head of the geology department at MIT and was esteemed in the field, but subsequent trips to Italy, Japan, the Aleutians, Central America and Hawaii made him acutely aware of how little was known about the dynamic geologic processes behind earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The only observatories in the world at the time were in Italy and Japan.

Logo of the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association. Photo: USGS

In 1909, the Whitney Estate gave him $25,000 — over $700,000 today’s money — for geological research that would assist “the protection of human lives and property.” He used the money to establish the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1912. He chose Kilauea for the observatory because of its consistent volcanic activity which allowed researchers to work with active lava at close range.

Jaggar’s amphibious automobile. Picture: Library of Congress

He was the first to suggest using geothermal energy in Hawaii, and he was a passionate advocate for designating Kilauea and Mauna Loa as national parks, which happened in 1916 with the establishment of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. He also won the Franklin L. Burr Prize for creating an amphibious automobile that allowed researchers to study hard-to-reach volcanoes. Perhaps most infamously, he came up with the idea of using bombs to try and divert lava flows from affecting houses, a tactic that has since been discredited.

In 1987, the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was dedicated in his honor.

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