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The Richter Scale Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Mary Beth Burns

Mary Beth has taught 1st, 4th and 5th grade and has a specialist degree in Educational Leadership. She is currently an assistant principal.

Have you ever wondered what scientists use to measure earthquakes? Come learn about the purpose and history of the Richter scale as well as how to use it to record the strength of earthquakes.

Purpose of the Richter Scale

Think about how we measure things on a daily basis. If we are trying to measure how much something weighs, we might use ounces or pounds. If we are trying to measure how long something is, we might use inches or feet. Having a standard unit of measurement gives us a universal language and allows us to compare measurements of multiple objects. This is the reason that the Richter scale was invented: to measure the magnitude, or the amount of energy released, of an earthquake.

A seismograph makes zig-zag lines to show the measurement of the earthquake
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The Richter scale is not a physical tool--rather, it's a measuring system. In fact, Charles Richter, its creator, said that many people used to ask him if they could see the scale. He would have to tell them 'no,' because the Richter scale cannot be seen. The physical tool that does measure earthquakes is called a seismograph. Seismographs make zig-zag lines that show the measurement of earthquake's seismic waves, or vibrations. The longer the wave, the larger the seismic wave.

History of the Richter scale

Charles Richter
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Charles Richter invented the Richter scale in 1935. He was a seismologist, someone who studies earthquakes. Charles was not always interested in earthquakes, and he says that he actually became involved in seismology by accident. Originally, Charles was a physics doctoral student studying at the California Institute of Technology. When a professor asked him if he would like to work in the seismology laboratory, he agreed, even though Charles was not studying earthquakes.

Charles invented the Richter scale when working at Carnegie Institution in Pasadena, California, as a research assistant to seismologist Beno Gutenberg. At first, the Richter scale was only developed for use in Southern California, but it can now be used to measure earthquakes all over the world.

How to Use the Richter scale

The Richter scale uses a numerical system to measure the magnitude of an earthquake. The earthquakes are measured to the nearest tenth (for example, 5.7). Most earthquakes are small with a measurement of less than three. These are known as microquakes and can happen multiple times a day. In fact, microquakes can happen once every minute and sometimes cannot be felt at all.

This chart explains what each number on the Richter scale means.
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