A Brief Biography of
Charles F. Richter
April 26, 1900, to September 30, 1985
The Richter Scale is a commonly known term that has been used since the 1930’s to measure and compare the intensity of earthquakes. Richter, the person, is less well known, and not many people realize that he was born in Butler County, Ohio. Richter’s story is one of intense personal struggle and persistence in the face of great difficulties in order to achieve and lead a productive life.
Charles Richter was born April 26, 1900, the only son, and second child, of Lillian and Frederick Kinsinger. The farm where he was born, on Wehr Road near Overpeck, was the Richter’s family farm where his mother Lillian grew up and remained even after she married. Charles’ parents were not happy and had divorced after their first child Margaret was born. About eight years later they married again and that is when Charles was born. But before Charles was two, his parents divorced again and his father, Frederick Kinsinger, eventually remarried.
Charles grew up having few memories of his father, and those were negative. His mother, grandfather, and much older sister dominated Charles’ life on the farm. His mother was his teacher and she taught him three languages at the same time: German, French, and English. Charles’ grandfather had a number of old books and Charles loved to read about science and nature. He showed an early interest in astronomy and was allowed to stay outside late into the night to gaze at the stars.
Grandpa Richter heard about the many opportunities in the relatively new state of California and moved the family there in 1909. Charles’ first experience in school was emotionally bruising. He was awkward, did not know how to make friends, and was a target of teasing. We know today that he probably had Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that is characterized by a lack of social know-how, but which is oftentimes accompanied by unusual intellectual capabilities. Charles’ mother decided to send Charles to the University of Southern California Preparatory School for high school. He did very well in this setting, became active in the Natural History Club, and enjoyed hiking and camping with his fellow students.
Charles started college at the University of Southern California and later transferred to Stanford University to major in chemistry. He seemed to have an aptitude for this field but broke so many beakers in the chemistry lab that one of his professors suggested he seek another major. Physics was his next choice and Charles graduated from college at the age of 20. However, the stresses of being a student took a toll on Charles and he had a major bout of depression that resulted in hospitalization. He gradually put his life back together and started to take graduate classes in physics at the California Institute of Technology. He did so well that it appeared that Charles Richter had found his path in life. He seemed destined to do research in physics and become a physics professor. Then by a “happy accident” Charles was recommended for a job at the newly formed Seismological Laboratory at Caltech. He assigned himself the task of developing an objective way of comparing different earthquakes. This involved studying massive amounts of data in the days before personal computers. But Richter persisted and, “My calculations worked out much better than I had expected and produced this definitive numerical scale that practically fell out of the data.” The Richter Scale was born!
Charles’ bouts of depression and awkwardness in social situations continued to plague him throughout his life and he sought refuge in nature and poetry. He and his wife, Lillian Brand, took hiking vacations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His wife, stepson, and sister preceded Richter in death and he had no other close relatives. He was buried next to Lillian, but his plot remained unmarked for ten years until his colleagues took up a collection to provide a marker. Persons with the last names of Richter, Kinsinger, Iutzi, Kennel, and Augspurger may be related to Charles Richter. Charles was the great, great-grandson of Catherine and Christian Augspurger, the Amish pioneers to Butler County, Ohio in 1819.
For Additional Information:
Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man, Susan Elizabeth Hough, 2007.
Meet Susan Hough in the video, Celebrating Richter
About: Susan Elizabeth Hough is a seismologist at the United States Geological Survey in Pasadena, California. She has served as an editor and contributor for many journals and is a contributing editor to Geotimes Magazine. She is the author of five books, including Earthshaking Science (Princeton) and Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. Hough graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1982 and is a University of California, San Diego Alumna, earning her Ph.D. in geophysics from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1987.
Among Hough’s most recent projects has been work in Haiti where she and her team deployed portable seismometers for recording aftershocks of the 2011 earthquake. She continues to cooperate with Haitian seismologists for setting up permanent seismic monitoring in their country. Areas at risk in future earthquakes are mapped by means of seismic microzonation using local geological conditions to characterize seismic hazard. Hough has written numerous articles for mainstream publications such as the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
She is an Honored Member of The Friends of Charles F. Richter based in Butler County, Ohio.