The history of HVO starts in 1909, when geologist Thomas A. Jaggar began his efforts to establish a volcano observatory in Hawaii. He believed that Kīlauea was the perfect place to study active volcanoes because of its accessibility and frequent activity.
Jaggar was unable to move to Hawaii right away. But, in 1911, he arranged for another scientist, Frank Perret, to observe and record Kīlauea's volcanic activity. Perret was in Hawaii from July to October 1911. A few months later, Jaggar arrived on Kīlauea and took over the continuous study of Hawaii's active volcanoes. January 1912 marked the founding of HVO and the beginning of more than 100 years of volcano watching in Hawaii.
From 1912 to 1947, HVO was located near the present-day Volcano House Hotel in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. In 1948, HVO was moved into a building that is now the Park's Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, where it remained for almost 40 years. In 1986, HVO moved to its current location, next to Jaggar Museum, on the rim of K?lauea Volcano's summit caldera.
In the beginning (1912–1919), HVO was operated through the support of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association, which was created by a group of Honolulu businessmen. Since then, HVO has been managed by several Federal agencies, including the U.S. Weather Bureau (1919–1924), the U.S. Geological Survey (1924–1935), and the National Park Service (1935–1947).
In 1947, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) became the permanent administrator of HVO.
"There is no place on the globe so favorable for systematic study of volcanology and the relations of local earthquakes to volcanoes as in Hawaii…where the earth's primitive processes are at work making new land and adding new gases to the atmosphere." Thomas A. Jaggar, 1916
In the early 1900s, Thomas A. Jaggar, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), witnessed the deadly aftermath of eruptions and earthquakes during a decade-long exploration of volcanoes around the world. The devastation he observed, particularly that caused by the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée, a volcano on the Caribbean Island of Martinique, which killed more than 29,000 people, led Jaggar to his life-long work to "protect life and property on the basis of sound scientific achievement." His vision was to establish Earth observatories throughout the world.
In 1909, while on his way to study seismic observatories in Japan, Jaggar stopped in Hawaii, where he visited Kīlauea Volcano for the first time. Noting the volcano's persistent and relatively benign eruptions, accessibility, and frequent earthquakes, Jaggar concluded that Kīlauea was the ideal site for the systematic study of volcanic and seismic activity. He then set about raising funds to build the first American volcano observatory at Kīlauea on the Island of Hawai‘i.
Jaggar monitored seismic activity, volcanic gases, and changes in the shape of Kīlauea with the best tools available to him at the time—a few seismometers, some meteorological equipment, and a surveyor's transit. What he lacked in instrumentation, however, he made up for with ingenuity, keen observations, and detailed documentation of volcanic activity using a camera and notebook.
Jaggar was the Director of HVO until he retired in 1940. Since then, 19 other scientists have served as HVO's Director or "Scientist-in-Charge."