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Guide to the Papers of Charles F. Richter, 1839-1984
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms
  • Related Collections

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Charles F. Richter papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1839-1984
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Creator: Richter, Charles Francis, 1900-1985
    Extent: 15 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Archives.
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: This collection documents the life of physicist Charles F. Richter, who focused on geophysics and seismology. He is best known as the seismologist who developed the magnitude scale that bears his name. The papers consist of correspondence with professional organizations, manuscript material, lecture notes, technical notes, and Richter's own collection of science fiction publications.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item, box and file number], Papers of Charles F. Richter. Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The Charles F. Richter collection came to the Archives of the California Institute of Technology in 1977, 1984 and 1986 as gifts of Charles Richter, the Seismology Laboratory and the Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences.


    Charles Francis Richter was born April 26, 1900 on a farm near Hamilton, Ohio. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother resumed her maiden name, Richter. In 1909 the family moved to Los Angeles. Richter entered the University of Southern California (USC) at the age of sixteen and after one year transferred to Stanford, where he received his bachelor's degree in physics in 1920. He completed his schooling at Caltech, earning a PhD in theoretical physics in 1928.
    Richter had planned to make his career in astronomy but when Robert A. Millikan asked him to become a research assistant at the Seismology Laboratory, sponsored by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he accepted the position. Once involved, he believed that he was associated with an unexploited field and that he was getting in on the ground floor. Richter's entire career was spent at Caltech, except for 1959-1960 when he was a Fulbright scholar in Japan. He became assistant professor in 1937, associate professor in 1947, full professor in 1952 and emeritus in 1970.
    A pioneer in seismology and active in seismological and earthquake engineering fields for over fifty years, Richter became known worldwide for the earthquake scale which he helped develop and which today bears his name. The Mercalli Scale, the most commonly used scale prior to Richter's, measured an earthquake's intensity at the point of the seismometers and not at the origin of the quake. What was needed was a means of ranking earthquakes measuring magnitude rather than intensity. At the suggestion of Beno Gutenberg, Caltech's distinguished professor of geophysics, Richter devised a scale in logarithmic terms. He developed a means of measuring an earthquake's strength at three or more points so that the point of origin could be determined. By comparing distance with recorded strength, the intensity of the tremor at the epicenter could be estimated.
    Richter was an important influence on the education of most of today's seismologists. His book, Elementary Seismology, has been the standard textbook for beginning seismology students. He was co-author with Gutenberg of Seismicity of the Earth and author or co-author of over 200 scientific papers. A researcher, teacher and advisor, Richter made major contributions to the advancement of the science of seismology and to the public's understanding of earthquakes.
    In 1971 he helped start the consulting firm of Lindvall, Richter and Associates that offered seismic evaluations of structures. He remained active in the firm following retirement from Caltech.
    Among his numerous honors and awards was the medal of the Seismological Society of America. Richter held the presidency of SSA, was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, member of Sigma Xi and had the honor of being present at the dedication of the Charles F. Richter Seismology Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Richter, the private man, was a highly complex person. He kept diaries, notes and memos concerning most aspects and activities of his life. Discussions on a variety of subjects including music, philosophy and history are preserved. The collection contains poetry and prose written by Richter. An avid science fiction and Star Trek fan, Richter gave to the Archives his collection of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories from the 1920s. There are manuscripts for science fiction novels written by Richter. He enjoyed backpacking and hiking, often spending Christmas vacations alone in remote areas of the West and Southwest. Richter's travel journals form part of the collection. Items in the personal correspondence make reference to family difficulties: his sister's mental state and his own physical and mental health. Richter was absentminded and had difficulty in completing tasks. There are notes containing reminders from Richter's wife, Lillian, as well as references to professional obligations that required more attention than he was willing or able to give.
    The collection also comprises course and lecture notes, slides, photographs and technical notes on specific earthquakes and earthquake-related topics. There are manuscripts, drafts and notes for textbooks and articles. Some information concerning the operation of the seismology laboratory and the geology division is available.
    The bulk of the correspondence, concentrated between the years 1950 and 1970, is arranged alphabetically and is mostly concerned with professional and public activities related to seismology. Other correspondence reflects Richter's broad range of interests.
    Many of the papers are worn, folded and mangled--stuffed by Richter into already full folders without regard to order. Files were alphabetical, chronological, or a combination of the two. Letters from individuals were often located in several files: alphabetically by both surname and by company or university affiliation, and chronologically.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.


    California Institute of Technology
    Science Fiction

    Genres and Forms of Materials

    Reprints (publications)
    Science fiction

    Related Collections

    Papers of Beno Gutenberg, 1911-1962
    Records of the Seismology Laboratory (unprocessed)
    Seismology Records (microform)
    Papers of Harry O. Wood, 1905-1954
    [Charles Richter Oral History Interview with Ann Scheid]