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The Ferndale Museum

Rob Roberts and Jerry Lema with the Bosch-Omori seismograph
Rob Roberts and Jerry Lema with the Bosch-Omori seismograph

The Tin Can Seismologist

By Paul Rasmussen Smith

At 5:10 in the morning on April 18, 1906, 17-year-old Joe Bognuda, the son of Swiss immigrants who were dairy farmers at Sears Point, was milking cows with his father, Natale.  “All at once,” Joe told an interviewer, “the earth started trembling and I heard a big crash in the horse barn. The shaking had thrown our horse backwards across the barn and through a wall, landing outside on the top of a manure pile. As I looked around, I found a cow in the middle of the road with her legs sticking up. The earthquake had knocked her right down. Then, I ran over to the levee, taking a footbridge to cross the canal. I wanted to see what was going on in San Pablo Bay. I was concerned that we might have a flood [from a tsumani] that would drown all of us.”  

Three months later, under unknown circumstances, Joe, who had been fascinated with earthquakes since grammar school, met Dr. Fusakichi Omori, the chairman of seismology at the Imperial University of Tokyo. Dr. Omori had traveled to San Francisco to study the damage of the ’06 temblor. Omori evidently respected Joe's interest in earthquakes, for the young man was invited to accompany the pioneer seismologist to Point Arena to observe the path of the quake. (They parted at that point; Dr. Omori taking a steamer to Humboldt Bay for further studies. In Eureka, there was labor unrest on the docks; Dr. Omori was mistaken for a strikebreaker and assaulted, an attack that was reported in newspapers statewide forcing Eureka’s mayor, to issue a formal apology. Dr. Omori then came to Ferndale, noting a landside south of Centerville at False Cape which had created a new promontory into the ocean.)

Joe learned about seismographs from his time spent with Dr. Omori and after a lot of experimentation and tinkering, he built a seismograph using a tin can as a drum which was turned by a motor connected to batteries. This earned him the nickname “Tin Can Seismologist.” Joe’s interest in seismographs became known to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Berkeley, and they asked if he could help them place seismographs in Ferndale. The USCDS selected Humboldt County because of its earthquake activity and had chosen Ferndale in particular because Joe Bognuda would tend them.

The design for these seismographs was developed by a Professor Dr. J.B. Bosch of Strasbourg, Germany. Dr. Omori, with whom Joe had toured the 1906 earthquake damage, had refined the design and the resulting instrument was called the Bosch-Omori seismograph. Bognuda decided to place the instruments in the unused city jail, which was located in the Ferndale City Hall and Fire House building.  The equipment was installed in 1933 at about the same time that Joe, then 44, married. The Ferndale Enterprise reported “… it was reported that Joe Bognuda and his bride left for Oregon on a honeymoon trip…[however] Joe has returned to Ferndale…the trip was undoubtedly cut short by the fact that the new seismographs are being installed…Honeymoon or no honeymoon, “Quiver” Bognuda just cannot resist those earthquake machines.”

After Joe got the seismographs up and running, he noticed that the record showed that every few days the machines had shaken. At first, he thought it was someone shaking the machines or maybe the shaking was caused by a large truck going by. In fact, the locals joked that what Joe thought were earthquakes were actually shakes caused by the members of the Ferndale Fire Department who held meeting in the hall above the seismographs. But Joe recognized that the seismograph records had the distinctive characteristics of a real earthquake located a far distance away. One day in 1933, when Joe was watching the needle record what appeared to be one of these distance earthquakes, C.J. (Bud) Olsen emerged from his home across the street from the Town Hall where the seismographs were located and said “I just heard on the radio that there has been a big earthquake in Long Beach and they are having the aftershocks.” It was then that Joe realized how sensitive these machines were and what a powerful tool they were for research.

Joe also noticed that the seismograph records often showed small wiggles that lasted for a long time and didn’t look like earthquakes. Joe showed the records to the seismic experts who said they had seen them on seismograph recording from other parts other world, and they were all at a loss to understand them. Joe puzzled over this for a long time and then he developed a theory that they might be caused by the waves crashing on the beach (even though Ferndale is 5 miles from the nearest coastline). So Joe precisely recorded when the crashing waves were particularly intense and found that indeed there was a correlation with these small wiggles seen on the seismographs. This was a significant scientific discovery. He shared this with the various scientists he knew and they were all amazed. In 1934, Joe presented his findings at a meeting of the prestigious Seismological Society of America in Berkeley. The story of this was picked up by the newspapers in San Francisco and in other big cities.

San Francisco Examiner, April 1934: “Another amateur has come to glory, solving a riddle which professions were unable to answer. This man of new fame is Joseph Bognuda of Ferndale, a little town in Humboldt County. The problem he answered was this: Why are “earthquakes” recorded on the seismographs when they don’t happen? The Ferndale merchant discovered and proved that the registered vibrations were due to the beating of the surf on the coast. Science has accepted the theory. There will be no Nobel Prize for Mr. Bognuda. But he will have the esteemed privilege of saying “I told you so”.

Another story on this topic ended with: The seventy-five seismologist gathered from all parts of the world listened thoughtfully to the words of the laymen and left the meeting place with an “I-wonder-why-I-never-thought-of-that” expression on their faces.

In 1940, the Universal Movie Studios took footage of Joe’s seismograph, his store and other things in Humboldt County. They included it in a Universal News Film in 1940 called “Checking the Pulsation of the Earth and Ocean in Humboldt County” shown in theatres throughout the United States as part of a “Stranger than Fiction” series.

Joe continued to present papers to the Seismological Society of America for many years. In 1952, he gave a paper about a tsunami which hit Crescent City and damaged several fishing vessels in the harbor. The wave was formed by a massive earthquake on the east coast of Russia resulting in a giant wave which traveled 3,500 miles to hit Crescent City.

In the 40 years he ran the seismograph for UC Berkeley, Joe documented 2,000 earthquakes which, as he said, “Means there was an earthquake about once a week. I proved that there was an earthquake somewhere in the world every few days.” In the 1980s the seismographs were moved to the Ferndale Museum where they are today, readily accessible for viewing by the public.


We welcome your visit February through December

Corner of Shaw & Third Streets:
515 Shaw (Map

Tours & school groups welcome!

Ferndale Museum
Post Office Box 431
Ferndale, California 95536-0431 USA

Wed. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Sun. 1-4 p.m.
Genealogy assistance available.
Advance notice is appreciated.

Sources of Information:

  1. This story is partially based on an interview conducted with Mr. Bognuda in the late 1970s; the audio cassette is accessible at the Ferndale Museum.
  2. Where the Ferns Grew Tall. p. 313-314.
  3. Humboldt Historian, Winter 2009, p. 46
  4. Interview with Ron V. Smith, Dec 2009, by his son, Paul R. Smith
  5. “Sources of North Coast Seismicity” by Dengler, Carver, and McPherson. In California Geology, Mar/April 1992. A publication by the California Division of Mines and Geology (available online; search by title).
  6. Images of America: Ferndale. P. 113
  7. Google search of Bosch-Omori seismographs.