The Feb. 12 Saturday Night Live had a skit called “A Spot of Tea,” in which three very proper English ladies spill boiling water on their laps and lose a massive shelf of glass knickknacks during a series of giant earthquakes. Behind them is a seismograph registering the chaos—a portable MEQ-800 model, supplied by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Lamont scientist John Armbruster took the seismograph down to NBC studios after the show called the Earth Institute in search of an authentic instrument. Lamont, home to one of the world’s most influential seismology departments, also is home to a somewhat secret museum of seismic instruments, including contraptions that once monitored Cold War nuclear-bomb tests and probed the deep interior of the earth. They reside in what used to be a private swimming pool, now a basement roofed over by the institution’s cafeteria. The one in the skit is an old type, with a slowly revolving drum of paper on which a needle scratches out bumps and grinds of the earth–the classic image of a seismograph that now appears only on TV and in movies, since seismologists long ago switched to recording data on computer screens.
Armbruster arrived at the studio to find the entire tea-party set–an ostensible English parlor–sitting on top of a bunch of inner tubes. When the producers wanted to create an “earthquake,” two hidden stagehands violently shoved this unsteady foundation, the set shook, and the tea ladies (who definitely were not female ladies) screeched. The seismograph registered shaking, but that was produced by a third stagehand holding the separate motion sensor that feeds signals to the recording drum, and moving it around at the right moment.
You can watch the skit here.