Maurice Major

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Maurice Major
Maurice W. Major headshot.png
PhD university Columbia University

Dr. Maurice W. Major (19 September 1927- 26 February 2007) was professor emeritus of the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), Golden, Colorado. He was a veteran of World War II.

Early Years and education

Major studied physics at Brown University. He worked for a brief time with the Pure Oil Company. Dr. Major received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he was a student of Maurice Ewing and later of Jack Oliver. He co-authored, with Oliver in 1960 a classic paper on the topic of so-called leaky modes---which is to say, incompletely trapped seismic waves---[1]

Dr. Major joined the faculty of the Colorado School of Mines in 1963 as an earthquake seismologist, in part to direct the Cecil H. Green Geophysical Observatory located in Bergen Park, Colorado in the tunnels of an old feldspar mine. The primary instruments were the three-component short period Benioff and three component long period Sprengnether seismometers. The station was number 43 in the World Wide Standard Seismograph Network (WWSSN), designated as (GOL) by the National Earthquake Information Service. In addition to the WWSSN standard instruments, the station ran two-component horizontal Wood-Anderson torsion seismometers. For a period of time there was a mercury tilt meter. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s, the station ran three horizontal strain seismographs.

Northeast Denver Earthquakes

This was a fortuitous development coinciding with a series of earthquakes associated with the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) Disposal Well that occurred in the early to middle 1960s in Northeast Denver near the town of Derby---an early incidence of injection well-induced seismicity. Dr. Major, with Ruth B. Simon compiled a bulletin of these events, including work of a number of CSM graduate students [2].[3]

Strain Seismology

Major's research was initially in the field of strain seismology. An important discovery made in this research was the phenomenon of propagating strain steps from earthquakes. Major credited this discovery with then graduate student Charles J. Wideman but history should remember this discovery as being equally shared with Major.[4]

Dr. Major was the principle investigator of a seismicity study, using traditional pendulum, as well as strain seismometers, as well as tilt meters,[5] that was part of the Canniken Nuclear Test project (the largest underground nuclear test conducted by the United States) on the Aleutian island of Amchitka in 1971.

Coal Geophysics

From late 1970s to his retirement in 1985, Dr. Major was principle investigator of a coal geophysics project that researched the feasibility of using in-seam seismic channel waves as a surveying tool for coal seams in the western US. This was envisioned as a possible technique that could be applied as a prelude to long-wall mining. Similar research was conducted by by Iain Mason in Britain and by Theodor Krey at Prakla-Seismos in Germany.


Major was a hands-on seismologist who was not intimidated by building seismological instruments as needed. These instruments included cable boxes for refraction surveys, field units for micro-seismicity surveys, strain seismographs, tilt meters, and hydraulically clampable geophones for the coal seam research. This allowed Dr. Major and his students to conduct research on shoe-string budgets.

Dr. Major was a bit of a character. He frequently told stories about his time as a "jumper" as part of the occupation forces in Japan at the end of World War II. He told stories about Maurice Ewing and the SOFAR project, from his time at Columbia University. He also recounted his own foibles with a sense of humor, including his early attempt to conduct a VSP survey (losing a string of hydrophones down a well) while with the Pure Oil Company. He was well read in history, liked discussing politics and social issues, which added to his charm as a raconteur. There was often a philosophical or scientific lesson in his stories.

Dr. Major and his wife Rita were known for their hospitality. Their home, located a few blocks from campus, was always open for visitors. Dr. Major was a skilled in carpentry and plumbing. At one time the Majors owned as many as 13 houses in Golden, which he and their sons Bruce and Leslie helped maintain as rental properties.

After his retirement in 1985, the Majors sold off all of their holdings in Golden, and Maurice became a "gentleman farmer", enjoying the solitude of a ranch near Burlington, Colorado, "where the Republican River crosses the Kansas line."

Maury Major was known for his signature flattop hair cut, white Oxford shirts, khaki pants, penny loafers, coffee consumption (often carrying a green metal thermos), his wit, sense of humor, and his penchant for smoking unfiltered Pal Mal cigarettes---a habit which likely contributed to the decline in his health in his later life.

He is missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.

In Memoriam

In Memoriam, Dr. Maurice W. Major, Departmental Newsletter 2007, Department of Geophysics, Colorado School of Mines [6]

Emeritus Professor Maurice Major died February 26, 2007. Dr. Major was a much admired professor in the geophysics department from 1963-1985. He also had a long association with the USGS.

Learning of Dr. Major’s death, his former student Bruce Presgrave (MSc, 1979) sent the following message to the Department and to colleagues at USGS where he is currently a supervisory geophysicist.

Subject: Sad News about Dr. Maurice Major

Contributed by Bruce Presgrave

For those of you who did not know Dr. Major, he was a Professor of Geophysics at the Colorado School of Mines and Director of the Cecil Green Geophysical Observatory in Bergen Park, one of the original stations of the old Worldwide Standard Seismograph Network stations. Maurice was in charge of the observatory during the swarm of induced earthquakes in “Derby” (now Commerce City, CO) during the 1960’s. Like Waverly Person [of the USGS], Maurice had a talent for explaining geophysical processes in terms the public could understand, and he was chief spokesperson here in the Denver area during that swarm.

A good storyteller who never took himself too seriously, he participated in one of the earlier versions of ocean-bottom-seismometrics. He was principal investigator of a seismology project in the Aleutian Islands in the 1970’s and while towing a seismometer to the island of Semisopochnoi, it was swamped by heavy seas and sank. While most people would have avoided discussing this unfortunate incident, Maurice carefully plotted the “deep-sixed” location on a large map in the Green Center that showed the rest of the network, then just waited for some innocent grad stu- dent to ask the question “Why is this station out in the middle of the channel?” His answer was always “That’s our ocean-bottom seismometer” and proceed with enthusiasm to tell the story.

In 1973-74, he was instrumental in the National Earthquake Information Center moving to the School of Mines campus when it was transferred from NOAA to the USGS.

After retiring from CSM, Maurice became a “gentleman farmer” on the Eastern Plains of Colorado, north of Burlington. It was my interview with him in 1973 that convinced me that CSM was where I wanted to do my graduate studies. Maurice was my advisor and friend.

(And yes, I was one of the innocent grad students drawn in by his OBS).


  1. Jack Oliver and Maurice Major, 1960, Leaking modes and the PL phase, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America April 1960 50:165-180
  2. Major, M.W., and Simon, R.B., 1968, A seismic study of the Denver (Derby) earthquakes, 'in' Hollister, J.C., and Weimer, R.J., eds., Geophysical and geological studies of the relationships between the Denver earthquakes and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal well: Colorado School of Mines Quarterly, v. 63, no. 1, p. 9-55.
  3. Healy, J. H., et al. "The denver earthquakes." Science 161.3848 (1968): 1301-1310.
  4. Wideman, C. J., and M. W. Major. "Strain steps associated with earthquakes." Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 57.6 (1967): 1429-1444.
  5. Major, M. W., G. H. Sutton, J. Oliver, and R. Metsger, 1964, On elastic strain of the earth in the period range 5 seconds to 100 hours Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America February 1964 54:295-346
  6. In Memoriam, Dr. Maurice W. Major, Departmental Newsletter 2007, Department of Geophysics, Colorado School of Mines.