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Geological & Planetary Sciences: Remembering George Housner (1910-2008)

Remembering George Housner (1910-2008)

George W. Housner, 1971-1973.HB128.1-1


William Hogarth, "The Lecture," reprinted in "The Works of William Hogarth," London, ca 1833. RB-WH1833-1


George Housner will be remembered at a memorial gathering this month at Caltech. Recognized here and throughout the world as the founding father of earthquake engineering, Housner was also devoted to the collecting of art and books. In an oral history with the Caltech Archives in 2003, he noted that these interests occupied a separate sphere in his life from science and technology. Housner donated his Asian art collection to Pasadena's Pacific-Asia Museum. The bulk of his rare book collection—approximately 270 titles—was given to the Caltech Archives in 2001. His personal and scientific papers were gifted to the Archives in 2002.


William Blake's "Jerusalem," plate 6. Blake's last great epic poem was engraved by the author on 100 copper plates. In this image, a black specter hovers over the figure of Los (anagram for Sol), who regularly appears in Blake's mythological pantheon as a smith and a creative force. The Archives' copy is number 43 of a limited facsimile edition of 516 prints by the Trianon Press, 1950. George W. Housner book collection. Photo ID RB-WB1950-1


Housner's book collecting was guided by his personal interests. The visionary English poet and artist William Blake was a special favorite. He also admired the art and writings of William Hogarth, among other 18th-century satirists. On the early history of science and technology, Housner acquired a number of exceptional books, among them the first Latin edition of Newton's Opticks (1706), published two years after the original English edition under Newton’s supervision. Housner also amassed a group of rare early writings on earthquakes, beginning with a 1531 pamphlet claimed to be the earliest published first-hand account of an earthquake. The shaker occurred in Mainz, Germany, in 1528, and the booklet was printed by no less a publisher than the grandson of Gutenberg’s own assistant and eventual successor, Peter Schoeffer. Other notable early printed accounts include several of the great Lisbon quake of 1755 and a very rare illustrated report on the great Ansei quake of 1855 near Tokyo.

Title page of Newton's "Opticks," Latin editon of 1706. Newton published his first edition in 1704 in English, but without his name on the title page, it is thought in order to avoid controversy. Knighted by Queen Anne in the following year, he displayed his name linked to his new title here for the first time in print, "Isaaco Newton, Equite aurato" (golden knight); his new rank entitled him to gild his armor. The Latin edition was intended for distribution outside of England. This copy, in an old and well-preserved binding, bears inside the bookplate of an aristocratic German family, probably dating from the 18th century. Purchased in Rome following World War II by George W. Housner. Photo ID RB-IN1706-1


Damage following the great earthquake of 1855 near Tokyo (the "Ansei earthquake"). Accounts of the disaster were suppressed by the government, making them today extremely rare. This plate is from "Ansei kenbunshi" (Observations of the Ansei Era), printed in Tokyo, 1856. George W. Housner book collection. Photo ID RB-AK1856-1


More images from the Housner book and art collections may be viewed in Parts 4 and 5 of the Archives' online exhibit, "Documenting Earthquakes".