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Giuseppe Mercalli

Giuseppe Mercalli
Giuseppe Mercalli
Born 1850
Died March 19, 1914(1914-03-19) (aged 63)
Nationality Italian
Fields Volcanology
Known for Mercalli Intensity Scale

Giuseppe Mercalli (May 21, 1850 – March 19, 1914) was an Italian volcanologist and Catholic priest. He is best remembered for the Mercalli intensity scale for measuring earthquakes which is still used today.


  • Biography 1
  • Intensity scales 2
  • Notes 3
  • References 4


Born in Milan, Mercalli was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and soon became a professor of the Natural Sciences at the seminary of Milan. The Italian government appointed him a professor at Domodossola, followed by a post at Reggio di Calabria and finally a post at the Naples University. He was also director of the Vesuvius Observatory until the time of his death. He is best remembered for the Mercalli scale for measuring earthquakes which is still used today.[1]

The Mercalli scale, unlike the more famous Richter magnitude scale, doesn't measure the actual energy released by an earthquake but how much effect an earthquake had on a given area, making it poorly suited for measuring earthquakes in sparsely populated areas, but ideal for comparing damage done by various tremors. The Mercalli scale, which has been widely used in earthquake engineering, gives a rating from I to XII, where I is felt only by a few people and XII has near total damage, few or no masonry structures remain standing, and objects are thrown into the air.

Mercalli's photograph of Vesuvius, taken immediately after its eruption in 1906

Giuseppe Mercalli also witnessed the eruptions at the Aeolian Islands of Stromboli and Vulcano. It is his description of these two volcanic eruptions which is used by volcanologists the world over. He also photographed Vesuvius immediately after its eruption in 1906.

In 1914 Mercalli burnt to death under suspicious circumstances, allegedly after knocking over a paraffin lamp in his bedroom.[2] He is thought to have been working through the night, as he often did (he once was found working at 11 AM when he had set an examination, upon hearing which he replied, “It surely can't be daylight yet!”), when the fatal accident occurred. His body was found, carbonized, by his bed, holding a blanket which he attempted to use to fend off the flames. The authorities, however, stated a few days later that the professor was quite possibly murdered by strangling and soaked in petrol and burned to conceal the crime, because they determined that money worth about $1,400 at the time was missing from the professor's apartment.

Intensity scales

Mercalli was the author of two intensity scales. The first of these (Mercalli, 1883), was according to Davison (1921) a mere adaptation of the Adolfo Cancani; he added two extra degrees at the top of the scale (the degrees XI (catastrophe) and XII(enormous catastrophe)). It was later completely re-written by the German geophysicist August Heinrich Sieberg and became known as the Mercalli–Cancani–Sieberg (MCS) scale. The Mercalli–Cancani–Sieberg scale was later modified and published in English by Harry O. Wood and Frank Neumann in 1931 as the Mercalli–Wood–Neumann (MWN) scale. It was later improved by Charles Richter, the father of the Richter magnitude scale. The scale is known today as the Modified Mercalli scale or Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, and abbreviated MM or MMI.


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  • Cancani A (1904) Sur l’emploi d’une double echelle sismique des intensitès, empirique et absolue. Gerlands Beitr Geophys 2:281—283
  • Davison, C. (1921) On scales of seismic intensity and on the construction of isoseismal lines. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 11:95—129
  • Mercalli, G. (1883) Vulcani e fenomeni vulcanici in Italia. In: Negri G, Stoppani A, Mercalli G (eds) Geologia d’Italia. Vallardi, pp 217–218
  • Mercalli, G. (1902) Sulle modificazioni proposte alla scala sismica De Rossi–Forel. Boll Soc Sismol Ital 8:184—191
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