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Volcano Watch — Who is Frank Alvord Perret, and what is his connection to Hawaiian volcanoes?

Unbeknownst to many people, Frank A. Perret actually began the work of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) in the summer of 1911. (Thomas A. Jaggar, Jr., the man who is more-often credited with founding HVO, followed in January 1912.)

A proud display of the molten lava sample from the Halema‘uma‘u lava lake after it was cool enough to handle. Frank Perret is holding up the right end.

Perret was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1867. By the age of 19, he had enrolled in, and dropped out of, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and started his own company—Elektron Manufacturing Company. The late 1800s were the dawn of electrical appliances and Frank was a self-taught electrical engineer.

Business was good, and, by 1893, Perret's electric products, including a working elevator, were exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair. But it was a competitive business, and, by the spring of 1902, Perret suffered "nervous prostration caused by overwork." He took refuge in the family home in Brooklyn.

Perret's doctor prescribed a total change of scene and place. So, using royalties from his electric motor patents, Perret rented a room on the eastern shore of the Bay of Naples, Italy, within sight of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano. Fascinated by volcanoes as a boy, he was again drawn to them as his next career.

Perret soon started studying the volcano and working with Vesuvius Observatory staff using photographs—another new technology—to document the activity. At the end of 1905, he was offered the unpaid position of Honorary Assistant to the Royal Observatory.

In his new position, Perret often slept in the observatory. On the night of February 17, 1906, he thought he could hear a continuous buzzing sound from the floor. When he set his upper teeth against the iron bedstead, he heard the sound more positively. He would later develop special microphones to enable recordings of this possible premonitory signal of an eruption, thus saving his teeth from further wear.

Vesuvius' activity continued to increase in 1906, culminating in a throat-clearing explosion and continuous blast of gas 13 km (8 miles) into the atmosphere on April 8. Perret and the observatory director remained at the observatory throughout the eruption, issuing activity updates to the panicked populace below. For this act of bravery, he was recognized by the Crown of Italy.

Because of his work at Vesuvius and his successful forecasts of volcanic activity in other areas, Perret was the most famous American volcanologist of his time.

Thomas Jaggar first met Perret on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in 1906, shortly after the big eruption. Early in 1911, Jaggar met with Perret again to discuss his Hawai‘i plan, which included using photography to document volcanic activity.

Jaggar convinced Perret to accompany him to Hawai‘i that summer (1911) to begin work on his vision of an observatory at Kīlauea. Jaggar didn't make the trip, but Perret arrived in July and immediately set to work. He built an instrument and observation hut on the rim of Halema‘uma‘u Crater and stretched an iron cable between two A-frames set 365 m (1200 ft) apart, from which instruments could be lowered into the crater.

An electric pyrometer, lowered into the circulating lava lake, provided the first direct measurement of molten lava temperature—1,010°C (1,850°F)—in the world. Perret's team also retrieved a lava sample from the lake for analysis back in Boston.

For almost 10 weeks, Perret lived at the edge of Halema‘uma‘u Crater, observing and taking careful notes, which were the basis for several weekly activity summaries published in Honolulu newspapers (the first Volcano Watch articles!). He took many, many photographs.

A few months before Jaggar finally arrived, Perret left Hawai‘i to return to his study of Italian volcanoes. But, his accomplishments during the 4 months he spent on Kīlauea provided a solid basis for volcano observations that Jaggar immediately continued upon his arrival in 1912.

In 1929, St. Pierre volcano erupted, and Perret relocated to the Caribbean island of Martinique where he built a volcano observatory and established a museum. After his death in 1943, colleagues published his memoir, titled "Volcanological Observations," where he described his many volcano studies and the instruments he invented to study them, enhanced with his exquisite photographs.

As we approach HVO's centennial, we cannot forget Frank A. Perret's contribution to setting the stage for 100 years of continuous volcano monitoring in Hawai‘i.


Volcano Activity Update

A small lava lake was present deep within the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook vent during the past week. A cycle of deflation and inflation (a DI event) was recorded at the summit starting last weekend and lasting through the early part of the week. The level of the lake fell during the deflation and rose again slightly during the inflation. Volcanic gas emissions remain elevated, resulting in relatively high concentrations of sulfur dioxide downwind.

Lava also erupted continuously within Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō over the past week, feeding a lava lake perched above the crater floor. The crater floor was 39 m (128 ft) below the east rim of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō when measured on Wednesday, June 1. The level of the lava lake dropped in response to the summit DI event, preventing overflows from the lake. Deflation at Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō was ongoing as of Thursday, June 2. No lava is erupting outside the crater.

No earthquakes beneath Hawai‘i Island were reported felt this past week.