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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three dimensional conceptual drawing of a tectonic plate being pushed down under another plate.
March 6, 2017

Block diagram illustrating an idealized geological setting offshore the state of Washington. As the subducting Juan De Fuca tectonic plate dives beneath North America, it can generate an earthquake, and trigger a tsunami.

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Seismometers (instruments for recording earthquakes) are tested and fitted at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory before going out into the field.

June 3, 2014

A seismometer deployed near the epicenter of the Greeley earthquake in 2014.

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November 30, 2000

Map of ANSS free-field seismic stations across the U.S. in 2016 (not shown are additional seismic instruments in buildings and other structures).  Map colors show seismic hazard across the United States derived from the National Seismic Hazard Model.  Background colors indicate the levels of shaking that have a 2% chance of being exceed in a 50-year period.  Shaking is expressed in a percentage of g, which is the acceleration of a falling object due to gravity, with red colors indicating highest shaking and thus higher hazard.  Notice the greater density of stations in regions with either higher hazard, higher risk (e.g., southern California), or both.

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.

Global Seismographic Network illustration

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Three Component Seismometer: The image above shows a three component seismometer used by the USGS for the collection of H/V data (Public domain).