Knowledge of the frequencies of highly explosive, moderately explosive, and nonexplosive eruptions would be useful in a variety of volcano studies. Historical records are generally incomplete, however, and contain very little quantitative data from which explosive magnitude can be estimated. Only the largest eruptions have a complete record back to the early 19th Century; other important explosive events went unrecorded prior to about 1960. Only a handful of the very biggest eruptions are represented in the geologic record, so it will be impossible to augment historical records post facto. A composite estimate of the magnitude of past explosive eruptions, termed the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), is proposed as a semiquantitative compromise between poor data and the need in various disciplines to evaluate the record of past volcanism. The VEI has been assigned to over 8000 historic and prehistoric eruptions, and a complete list is available in a companion document.