How Science Has Battled Natural Disasters

May 1933
From the Popular Science archives, the hurricane house, the seismograph camera, the forest-fire-fighting dirigible, and more.

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On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana. The Category 3 storm flooded 80 percent of the city of New Orleans and killed at least 1,836 people in the U.S. Eight years later, residents of destroyed neighborhoods are still struggling to rebuild.

As sad as it is to admit, most disaster-prone regions have had to learn from tragedy in order to improve their defenses against natural destruction. We’ve collected early examples such technology from the Popular Science archives.

We begin in the fall of 1919, just after World War I, when dirigibles glided across national forests in search of fires. After the war, scores of airplanes and zeppelins were commissioned to join horseback-riding firefighters to extinguish the flames consuming our trees. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Japan was about to suffer an earthquake that would kill an estimated 140,000 people. After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and tsunami destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama, scientists collaborated to devise methods that would reduce the body count in future disasters. Japanese scientists simulated earthquakes on scale models of buildings to see what kind of engineering held up, while an American professor proposed installing ball bearings within houses for stabilization.

Meanwhile, laypeople did everything they could to protect themselves from disasters. One architect built a teardrop-shaped “hurricane house” that turned with the wind during a storm, while businesses sold the all-steel cyclone cellar, which could be delivered in one piece, no assembly required. Simply dig a hole in your front yard, embed the cellar below, and hop in when the winds begin to stir.

See more technologies by browsing through our gallery.


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