There was no ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the birth of HVO. It started as a hut for observers on the edge of Halema‘uma‘u in 1911. The first permanent building was constructed near the current location of Volcano House in 1912, when continuous observations began. But the observatory’s origins go back to 1902, when a 31-year-old geologist named Thomas A. Jaggar Jr. landed on the shores of a wasteland of jumbled stone and burnt plaster that only thirteen days before had been St. Pierre, the capital of the Caribbean island of Martinique. A cloud of super-hot gases and ash from a volcano named, coincidentally, Mount Pelée had blasted through the city, leaving only three survivors of a population of 28,000.
Amid that devastation, where nearly every building had been razed and every street buried, Jaggar found his calling. “I realized that the killing of thousands of persons by subterranean machinery totally unknown to geologists … was worthy of a life work,” he later wrote in his autobiography. Jaggar became chairman of geology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A tough, active man and gifted amateur actor, he could play the role of professor as fluidly as he could blend in with highsociety benefactors to talk them out of their money. But on campus he was about as comfortable as Indiana Jones. He preferred to travel on expeditions to study volcanoes in Europe, Japan, the Caribbean and Alaska.
It was on one such trip to Italy that Jaggar met his future collaborator, Frank Alvord Perret, “The Hero of Vesuvius,” whose pioneering work had made him perhaps the most famous volcanologist of his time. Jaggar was on his way to Japan in 1909 to visit Fusakichi Omori, who’d helped found the world’s most advanced earthquake-monitoring network, when he met Kilauea for the first time. He journeyed by boat, train and buckboard wagon to view the red steam rising off the lava lake that then filled Halema‘uma‘u. Back in Honolulu, Jaggar proposed setting up a geophysical observatory on Kilauea to the Chamber of Commerce. He found support from Lorrin A. Thurston, who published the Commercial Pacific Advertiser, owned the railroad that ran partway to Kilauea’s summit and was a major stockholder in Volcano House. Jaggar left Hawai‘i with promises of backing from Thurston and his friends.
Back in Boston, interest in geophysical research had been heightened by a decade of geologic upheaval. The eruption on Martinique had been followed by the San Francisco earthquake and an explosive eruption of Vesuvius in 1906; in 1908 an earthquake centered near Messina, Italy, had claimed more than one hundred thousand lives. MIT had a large grant for geophysical research from the Whitney Foundation, but MIT’s president wanted that money spent on a geophysical observatory in Massachusetts. After appealing to heiress Caroline Whitney, Jaggar managed to get Whitney funds to purchase Omori-designed seismometers, special high-temperature thermometers and a cable system to lower those thermometers into the lava lake at Halema‘uma‘u. He finally persuaded university officials to grant him a leave of absence for research on Kilauea.
In January of 1911, when Perret was in Boston to do a series of lectures, he and Jaggar agreed to visit Kilauea together to try out Jaggar’s new instruments. But when Jaggar’s wife became pregnant, Perret went on alone. He built the hut on the edge of Halema‘uma‘u and strung a cable across the crater to lower Jaggar’s thermometers. With Thurston and his family manning the cable machinery, Perret took Madame Pele’s temperature for the first time: 1,010 degrees centigrade. Jaggar finally arrived at Volcano House on January 17, 1912. By then Perret was gone, and his hut had been scorched by the rising lava lake. Jaggar retreated to the cliff overlooking the caldera to build his permanent observatory.
It didn’t take long for Jaggar’s gamble to pay off: In 1914, according to science historian and former HVO geologist John Dvorak, Jaggar’s seismometers recorded a swarm of micro-earthquakes — something big was about to happen on Mauna Loa. Six hours later the volcano erupted: For the first time in history, a volcanic eruption had been scientifically predicted before it occurred. It wouldn’t be the only first for Jaggar: In 1933 his instruments detected an earthquake in Japan, and he alerted public officials that a tsunami could be coming. In Hilo Harbor, “piers were cleared of cargo and ships were sent to sea,” writes Dvorak. “Within ten minutes of the expected time, a large wave arrived—the first accurately predicted tsunami.”