The Magic of… Gates!

If you know Dublin you might have walked past the gates of Trinity College. Perhaps you leaned against them while waiting for the bus at Nassau Street, but did you ever stop to look at them? The gates have an inscription at the base with the Mallet family name.

Below is an extract from an article I wrote about Robert Mallet and the gates that carry his name. It was published in Trinity News in 2011.

“Robert Mallet, born in Dublin in 1810, is often remembered as the father of seismology, the study of earthquakes. He attended Trinity, where he studied Natural Sciences. During his time as a student he travelled widely and, by 1826, he had completed his first tour of Europe. After graduating in 1830, he joined his father’s iron founding business in Capel Street, Dublin city, where he helped manufacture the iron railings which surround Trinity.

Mallet was interested in all aspects of natural history and engineering. He experimented in metallurgy and, among other endeavours, was involved in improving the new Dublin and Kingstown railway. In Chamonix, he became fascinated with the mechanisms in which glaciers flow down along mountain slopes. Around this same time, Louis Agassiz was making his observations on glaciers and developing the concept of an Ice age.

Mallet went on to propose that the damage caused by earthquakes was due to transmission of elastic waves of compression through rocks. Notably, he coined the term “seismic” to describe these waves and the term “epicenter” to describe the point on the Earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake.

His experiments on Killiney Beach, south of Dublin, became famous for his use of gunpowder detonation to examine the velocities of energy passing through various materials, including rocks. This was, in fact, the first “controlled source” seismological experiment ever to be performed in Ireland or anywhere else in the world.

These studies were brought to the attention of many in 2009, when the BBC Coast program recreated the experiments by detonating a small charge on Killiney beach.

Mallet also produced a “Seismographic Map of the World”, where he plotted known earthquakes and volcanoes. He realised that most of these geological events occurred along sinuous lines, rather than being randomly distributed. One hundred years later, this would be explained by the theory of Plate Tectonics. The draw of the quakes was strong, leading Mallet to travel to Italy to observe the effects of the 1857 Neapolitan Earthquake.

Among his many other scientific enquiries and results, he tried to measure the local increase in temperature which accompanies brittle failure. Some of Robert Mallet’s collections are still housed in the Department of Geology in Trinity.

The legacy of the Mallet’s family foundry business can still be seen in the Irish landscape and the legacy of Mallet’s scientific work is fundamental for modern seismic studies. The 18th century was veritably a spawning ground for driving thoughts in many disciplines, in primis Geology, and Ireland was not on the sidelines in this respect.”


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