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The Sprengnethers and their Seismographs

Deborah Jean Warner

National Museum of American History

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William Francis Sprengnether (1884-1954) was a machinist in St. Louis, Missouri, who began his career repairing transits and other surveying instruments.  He came to public attention in 1910 when a newspaper reported that he raised spiders in his cellar. (Ref. 1)  A letter to the editor on the “Future of Aviation” suggests his progressive attitude. (Ref. 2)  So too do his several patents, most of which pertained to automobiles.  Sprengnether’s wife, Crescentia, patented a hair-bobbing gauge. (Ref. 3)


William Francis Sprengnether Jr. (1909-1951) began working with his father when he was yet in high school.  While working for a B.S. and an M.S. in physics at St. Louis University, the young man came also under the influence of James B. Macelwane, S.J., an energetic and charismatic scientist who understood the benefits of a local instrument enterprise on which he could rely. In due course the Sprengnether Instrument Co. was working on a magnetic dip compass, a grating spectrometer, and a microphotometer. (Ref. 4)  Father Macelwane and William Jr. later worked together, designing instruments and writing articles.  Recollections of Macelwane visiting the Sprengnether home, often with graduate students in tow, suggest that the connection went well beyond business (Ref. 5).


When Sprengnether Jr. died in a river accident in 1951, Macelwane mourned this “great loss to science.” (Ref. 6)  The Sprengnether family then sold their firm to Rudolph Frank Hautly, a Swiss-born machinist who had worked with them several years, and whose father had prospered in the cheese business. (Ref. 7)  The firm became the W. F. Sprengnether Instrument Co., Inc., soon thereafter, and advertised that it had been manufacturing engineering instruments since 1904. (Ref. 8)  Hautly, in turn, sold the firm to Dyneer Corp. (formerly Aspro, Inc.) in 1978.  At the time it was said that Sprengnether had had sales of $2 million a year. (Ref. 9)




As a student at St. Louis University in 1909, Macelwane had seen the establishment of the Jesuit Seismological Society, an organization that, in the words of one historian, aimed to bring “widespread publicity and general acclaim in a culture that celebrated science.” (Ref. 10)  When he went to Berkeley for doctoral work in physics, he chose a topic in seismology, earning the first PhD in that subject granted in the United States.  Returning to St. Louis in 1925, Macelwane organized a department of geophysics, and remained an active member of the seismological community in the United States and abroad.  He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the first American Jesuit so honored.  He reorganized the Jesuit Seismological Society as the Jesuit Seismological Association, and encouraged the member institutions to update their equipment, much of it made by the Sprengnethers. (Ref. 11)


In 1934, in a move undoubtedly engineered by Macelwane, the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America passed a resolution stating that, being “cognizant of the importance of increasing our knowledge of the nature and causes of microseisms,” it urged “the development of suitable recording instruments, and the continuances of studies of this phenomenon.”  And it further urged “the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Jesuit Seismological Society to set up necessary instruments for recording microseisms at the Hawaiian Islands and at St. Louis University, respectively.” (Ref. 12)


In 1937, when money for this project was to be had, the Sprengnethers made four horizontal seismographs.  These were used by Jesus Emilio Ramirez, S.J., a graduate student at St. Louis University who, after receiving his PhD, returned to his native Bogota and established a geophysical institute there.  Seeking a connection between microseisms and meteorology, Ramirez found that microseisms were a good predictor of hurricanes.  His seismographs were of the garden-gate form.  They were, moreover, equipped with an induction transducer and electromagnetic damping of the sort that had been introduced in 1906 by the Russian prince, Boris Galitzin.  The electromagnetic barograph that the Sprengnethers made for this project was designed by Macelwane and graduate students Donald Bradford and Vincent M. O’Flaherty, S.J. (Ref. 13)


The U.S. Navy purchased several Sprengnether seismographs and barographs suitable for its new hurricane tracking program in 1944.  According to Sprengnether Jr., these instruments had simple controls and adjustments, and could be operated by people with little technical training. (Ref. 14).  During the next several years, the Sprengnethers sent instruments of this sort to Venezuela, Santa Domingo, Cuba, Hawaii, and Bolivia.  When the firm made a tripartite microseismic station for the University of Brisbane—James Duhig, the Archbishop of Brisbane, ordered these instruments while on a trip to the United States, and let it be known that they were worth between £5000 and £6000—Sprengnether Jr. travelled to Australia for their installation. (Ref 15)  The Sprengnether firm also published the Operating Manual for Microseismic Research (1954) written by Marion Gilmore, a geophysicist affiliated with the Navy program.

Sprengnethers with a horizontal seismograph

Fig. 1  W. F. Sprengnether Sr. and W. F. Sprengnether Jr. with one of their horizontal seismographs around 1947.


Joseph A. Volk was an engineer from Germany who devised an electronic seismograph while earning a PhD in geophysics at St. Louis University.  The first example, made by the Sprengnethers and installed at the University by 1948, was said to be “entirely unlike the Galitizin instruments in design, yet embodying their basic principle.”  Volk’s photoelectric seismograph, developed on a contract with the Office of Naval Research, was described as a visual recording Sprengnether instrument with a Volk-type photoelectric cell. (Ref. 16)  Volk would later obtain several patents, sell them to the Navy, and go into industry. (Ref. 17)


The Sprengnethers worked with at least two other seismologists who earned their degrees at St. Louis University.  Ross Heinrich wrote the Sprengnether brochure, Interpretation of Seismograph Records (1951). Florence Robertson, celebrated as the first American woman to receive a PhD in seismology, wrote the Sprengnether brochure, On the Selection of a Seismograph (1948, Ref. 18).


Amateur Seismology


Macelwane introduced Sprengnether’s low-cost vertical seismograph at the 1941 meeting of the American Physical Society, noting that several examples were being tested by members of the Jesuit Seismological Association.  Macelwane also showed the instrument to the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America later that year, acknowledging that it had been designed “to supply the apparent demand for a simple low-priced, short-period, vertical-component seismograph of fairly high sensitivity.” (Ref. 19)  John J. Lynch, S.J., a professor at Fordham University who, like Macelwane, was supportive of amateurs, noted that Sprengnether’s instrument could be had for $160. (Ref. 20)


Obviously pleased with this instrument, the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America passed a resolution stating that: “Whereas amateur seismologists can make important contributions if equipped with suitable instruments; and Whereas such instruments have been made available at very slight cost by the William F. Sprengnether Instrument Company of Saint Louis, be it Resolved, that the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America and its individual members give every encouragement possible of such amateurs.” (Ref. 21)  But with Pearl Harbor on the horizon, few of these instruments were produced at this time.


Sprengnether returned to the subject in the immediate post-war period, offering horizontal and vertical seismographs of short and long periods that were “designed to meet the demand for lower priced instruments of high magnification and flexibility of application.” (Ref. 22)  Going a step further, Sprengnether announced his intention to offer “an unassembled kit consisting of a horizontal component Wood-Anderson seismometer and a drum recorder, complete in every detail,” with instructions for assembly, operation and interpretation.  Apparently quoting a press release or interview, newspapers reported that Sprengnether hoped to create “a new corps” of amateur seismologists, that he had applied for a patent on this device “which he believes will develop a lot of interest among hobby-minded Americans,” and that the seismograph was expected to cost about $75.  Science Digest described this instrument as “a baby-sized seismograph that Joe Citizen can use to detect and record earth shaking events.”  A vertical-component seismometer was to follow soon thereafter. (Ref. 23)  Harry Larkin, Jr., an enthusiast in Elmira, N.Y., published a diagram of his Sprengnether torsion seismograph in Scientific American in 1952, noting that Sprengnether was “an advanced amateur astronomer and telescope maker, [who] wished to encourage amateur interest in seismology and in placing this equipment on the market ignored the conventional profit motive.” (Ref. 24)



World Wide Standard Seismological Network


One especially important Sprengnether contract came from the World Wide Standard Seismological Network.  Established in 1961, the WWSSN was a key component of VELA Uniform, a Cold War project that was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a branch of the Department of Defense, and managed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.  The WWSSN was designed to detect underground nuclear tests, but also generated valuable information about the Earth’s interior and its dynamic processes.


The WWSSN comprised 120 stations, each provided with identical apparatus.  Each station had two sets of seismometers.  Each set had one vertical seismometer (to capture the vertical component of the Earth’s motion), and two horizontal seismometers (one to capture the east-west component of the Earth’s motions, and one to capture the north-south component).  The Benioff set captured short period quakes.  The Press-Ewing set, produced by Sprengnether, captured long period quakes. (Ref. 25)



Practical and Portable Seismographs


Although primarily interested in seismology as a science, the Sprengnethers were aware of its uses for prospecting and other engineering purposes.  Under Hautly’s leadership, practical work became increasingly important to the business.  Here I would just mention a few highlights.  The firm published the Bibliography of Engineering Seismology (first edition, 1954).  The Sprengnether Autocorder, available by 1963, was advertised as “a 60-day automatic photographic light-beam recorder, specifically designed for long-term unattended recording.” (Ref. 26)  The Sprengnether S-7000 seismometer was based on patent 3,158,833 * issued to Hautly in 1964.  The firm also made digital event recorders that were suitable for vibration monitoring and earthquake recording with cassettes.


*  [NB:  not all browsers are enabled to view US Patents.  Links to the required software are provided on the US Patent portal.]



  1.   “Spider Important To Science,” Washington Post (Oct. 16, 1910), p. 36. Sprengnether ads for “slightly used transits” in Popular Mechanics (Oct. 1915), ads p. 27; also (Feb. 1914).
  2.   W.F. Sprengnether, “Future of Aviation,” St. Louis Post Dispatch (Jan. 14, 1911), p. 4.
  3.   W.F. Sprengnether, “Tread Band for Pneumatic Tires,” U.S. Patent 1,271,957 (1918); “Spark-Plug,” U.S. Patent 1,310,847 (1919); “Sun Shield for Automobiles,” U.S. Patent 1,427,332 (1922). Crescentia Sprengnether, “Hair-Bobbing Gauge,” U.S. Patent 1,544,868 (1925).
  4.   W.F. Sprengnether, “Miner’s Compass or Dip Needle,” U.S. Patent 1,947,809 (1934). Directions for Using Sprengnether Magnetic Dip Compass; this is a 1 page sheet headed “W.F. Sprengnether, 14 North St., St. Louis. [1935].
  5.   Telephone conversations with Robert L. Sprengnether. J.B. Macelwane and W.F. Sprengnether, Jr., “The Machelwane-Sprengnether Magnetometer,” Transactions of the American Geophysical Union 29 (1948), 638-639.
  6.   “Seismograph Manufacturer Dies in River,” Dixon [Illinois] Evening Telegraph (Aug. 31, 1951), p. 11. J.A. Macelwane, “William Francis Sprengnether, Jr.,” Earthquake Notes, 22 (1951), 30.
  7.   U.S.A. Oilfield Service, Supply and Manufacturers Directory (1988).
  8.   Sprengnether ad in Seismological Research Letters, 37/4 (1966).
  9.   “Stockholder Meeting Briefs,” Wall Street Journal (Nov. 29, 1978), p. 31.
  10.    Carl-Henry Geschwind, “Embracing Science and Research: Early Twentieth-Century Jesuits and Seismology in the United States,” Isis, 89 (1998), 27-49. Augustin Udias, Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories (Dordrecht and Boston, 2003).  Udias, “Jesuits’ Studies of Earthquakes and Seismological Stations,” in Geology and Religion: A History of Harmony and Hostility (London, 2009), 135-143.
  11.   Perry Byerly and William Stauder, “James B. Macelwane, S.J.,” in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, 31 (1958), 254-286. “Personalities in Science,” Scientific American, 164 (Jan. 1941), 5.
  12.   Notice in Transactions of the American Geophysical Union 19 (193?), 125. Notice in Earthquake Notes, 5/1-2 (1933), 6.
  13.   J.B. Macelwane and W.F. Sprengnether, Jr., “A Seismogram for Microseisms,” Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 19 (1938), 128-129. J. E. Ramirez, S.J., “An Experimental Investigation of the Nature and Origin of Microseisms at St. Louis, Missouri,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 30 (1940), 35-84, 139-178. Macelwane and Ramirez, “The Electromagnetic Barograph and its Performance,” Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 19 (1938), 125-128.
  14.   W.F. Sprengnether, Jr., “A Description of the Instruments use to Record Microseisms for the Purpose of Detecting and Recording Hurricanes,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 36 (1946), 83-87.
  15.   William F. Sprengnether, Jr., “Tripartite Seismograph Station at Brisbane, Australia,” Earthquake News, 22/1 (1951), 7.  Owen A. Jones, “The New University of Queensland Seismological Station,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 43 (1853), 247-254.
  16.   “Sprengnether Seismographs,” Earthquake News, 19/1-2 (1947), 10-11.  Note in Science, 108 (1948), 433.  Joseph A. Volk and Florence Robertson, “The Electronic Seismograph,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 40 (1950), 81-93.  Joseph A. Volk, “The Photoelectric Seismograph,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 40 (1950), 169-173.  For photos of the Volk-Sprengnether Impulse-Magnetic Vertical Component Seismograph, the Volk-Sprengnether Impulse-Magnetic Horizontal Component Seismograph, the Volk-Sprengnether Electronic Seismograph, Horizontal Component, and the Volk-Sprengnether Electronic Seismograph, Vertical Component, see, accessed Dec. 17. 2012.
  17.   “Joseph A. Volk” in St. Louis University, Universitas (Fall, 1988), 6.  Obituary in St. Louis Post Dispatch (Nov. 20, 1993).
  18.   “Ross R. Heinrich,” Seismological Research Letters, 69 (1998), 298.  J. B. Macelwane, “Memorial of Doctor Florence Robertson,” Earthquake Notes, 25 (1954), 42-43.
  19.   “Device Raises Sum of Heavy Oxygen,” New York Times (May 2, 1941), p. 22. “Low-Cost Seismograph,” Science News Letter, 39 (May 10, 1941), 294.  J.B. Macelwane and W.F. Sprengnether, Jr., “The Sprengnether Vertical Seismograph,” Earthquake Notes, 13/1-2 (1941), 372-374, illus.
  20.   John J. Lynch, S.J., Our Trembling Earth (New York, 1940), pp. 169-175. Lynch, “Amateur Seismology,” Earthquake Notes, 13/1-2 (1941), 400.
  21.   Note in Earthquake News, 21/1-2 (1950), 3.
  22.   W.F. Sprengnether, Jr., “Horizontal Seismometers (Short and Long Periods) and Vertical Component Seismographs,” Earthquake News, 17/4 (1946).  Sprengnether, “Horizontal- and Vertical-Component Seismographs,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 37 (1947), 101-105.
  23.   “Seismology Student Invents Device to Induce Hobby-Minded to Record Own Earthquakes,” Oakland Tribune (May 11, 1950), p. 20-M (and several other papers). W.F. Sprengnether, Jr., “A Professional Kit for the Amateur Seismologist,” Earthquake News, 21/1-2 (1950), 10, and Engineering News, 21 (1950), 10.  “Seismographs for Amateur Earthquake Hunters,” Science Digest, 28 (Oct. 1950), 33.  J.B. Macelwane, S.J., “William Francis Sprengnether, Jr.,” Earthquake Notes, 22 (1951), 30.  Sprengnether, Seismographs Series AR. Sprengnether, Instructions for Assembly and Installation of Sprengnether Series AR Seismograph. Ross R. Heinrich, The Interpretation of Seismograph Records (St. Louis, 1951). accessed Dec. 12, 2012.
  24.   Harry H. Larkin, Jr., “An Amateur Installation of the Sprengnether Series AR Seismograph,” Earthquake News, 22/2 (1951), 18.  Albert Ingalls, “The Amateur Scientist,” Scientific American, 186 (April 1952), 94-97.  Memos in Albert Ingalls papers, Record Group 175, Box 7, Folder 21, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.  Clair L. Stong, The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist (1962), snippet.
  25.   United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, Instrumentation of the World-Wide Seismograph System, Model 10700 (Washington, D.C., 1962).  W.F. Sprengnether Instrument Co., Inc., General Discription (sic) Long Period Horizontal Seismometer ([St. Louis], n.d.). W.F. Sprengnether Instrument Co., Inc., Parts List. Long Period Horizontal Seismometer ([St. Louis], n.d.).
  26.   Sprengnether ad in Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 44 (1963).