When was the first instrument that actually recorded an earthquake?

The earliest seismoscope was invented by the Chinese philosopher Chang Heng in A.D. 132. This was a large urn on the outside of which were eight dragon heads facing the eight principal directions of the compass. Below each dragon head was a toad with its mouth opened toward the dragon. When an earthquake occurred, one or more of the eight dragon-mouths would release a ball into the open mouth of the toad sitting below. The direction of the shaking determined which of the dragons released its ball. The instrument is reported to have detected an earthquake 400 miles away that was not felt at the location of the seismoscope. The inside of the seismoscope is unknown: most speculations assume that the motion of some kind of pendulum would activate the dragons.

Learn more: The Early History of Seismometry (to 1900)

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Image: Seismic station,  USGS Northern California Seismic Network

Traditional seismic stations such as this one require a source of power (solar here), a poured concrete foundation and several square feet of space. They are not always practical to install in urban areas, and that's where NetQuakes comes in.