John Johnson Shaw (1873 - 1948)

Seismograph Inventor

Thanks to Sue Challenger for much of this information

JJ Shaw 3 John Johnson Shaw was one of Britain's greatest amateur scientists yet his work is little known outside books and newspapers cuttings.

He was born on 27th December 1873 at 11 Church Street, Lower Gornal, Staffordshire, the son of a grocer and pawnbroker. Young John did well at Red Hall Junior School and progressed to King Edward VI School at Birmingham where he won three science prizes. He seemed destined for a career as a professional scientist.

In 1896, a holiday in the Isle of Wight led him closer to the scientific dream. Shaw discovered that geologist and fellow earthquake buff, Professor John Milne, was also enjoying staying on the island. He decided to pay him a visit. which sparked off a lifelong partnership.

Inspired by Milne, Shaw started work on a new project, turning the cellar at his Hill Top, West Bromwich home, into a science laboratory. Within weeks he'd built his first seismograph, a machine to detect, record and measure earth tremours. The home made machine was built from materials lying around the house. Powered by an old clock, its casing was an old Hudson's soap box. The recording drum was originally an empty Tate and Lyle's treacle tin, and there were even bits from an old bike frame!

JJ Shaw 2

On October 13th 1908 Shaw became the first person to announce that an earthquake had occurred in Mexico. His homespun machine had given him a major scoop. He soon became a regular contact for the press, who were eager for his comments whenever earthquakes occurred.

The Milne-Shaw Seismograph was launched in 1913, and went on to become the world's standard earthquake recording instrument. Amazingly, these machines which were sold right across the British Empire, were assembled in Shaw's greenhouse in West Bromwick. Some were still in use in the 1960's.

Shaw eventually received the CBE, and was made an honorary Master of Science for his work. He died in 1948, recognised by fellow experts as one of the world's leading seismologists. Sadly, his pioneering work seems to have been forgotten in his native Black Country. Still, it shows what you can achieve with true Black Country grit... some bits of junk and a cellar.

JJ Shaw
JJ Shaw at work
Milne-Shaw Seismograph
Milne-Shaw Seismograph with cover removed


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