Burton McCollum

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Burton McCollum was a pioneering geophysicist, a founding member of SEG, and one of the geophysicists credited with founding exploration seismic prospecting. He was awarded SEG Honorary Membership in 1958.


Biography Citation for SEG Honorary Membership

Contributed by Sigmund Hammer

Four great names dominate the early history of geophysical exploration with the seismograph. These names are William P. Haseman, formerly of Norman, Oklahoma, now deceased; John Clarence Karcher of Dallas: E. A. Eckhardt of Pittsburgh; and Burton McCollum of Houston. Two of the three surviving members of this illustrious team are Honorary Life Members in our Society. Today we complete the well-earned recognition of this historical foursome.

Burton McCollum's leadership in science spans more than 50 years and there is yet no diminishing of his powerful genius. The route which led him into geophysics was circuitous. His first profession was electrical engineering, which he practiced with eminence for 22 cars. Many publications and 11 patents attest his success as an electrical engineer. It is of interest to note that his first invention--an alternating current motor was made while he was still a student at the University of Kansas, which awarded him a B. S. in E. E. in 1903. This first patent was sold to the Electro-Dental Company of Philadelphia for $250, a munificent stun at that time to a young man on the threshold of his profession. Drilling teeth and drilling rock formations arc both beneficiaries of Burton McCollum's genius. Work for electric power companies on the West Coast brought problems of electrolytic corrosion, and his success with these problems brought an invitation to come to Washington organize a department of Electrolytic Corrosion at the US Bureau of Standards. Dr. Eckhardt was employed as Mr. McCollum's assistant at the Bureau, and during World War I they worked together to develop methods and instruments for sound ranging to locate artillery Haseman, Professor of Physics, and his graduate student.

 J. C. Karcher at the University of Oklahoma, joined in the work during summer vacations from their university studies, and it is this fortunate association which inspired idea after the war to develop sound reflection techniques for geologic exploration in the search for oil.

McCollum's interest in exploration geophysics was a by-product of World War I, and, once aroused, his interest and enthusiasm have never faltered. To him alone goes full credit for persevering through lean years of experimentation and technical developments until early discouragements were overcome and success was proven by actual discovery of oil. Today as President of the McCollum Exploration Company his vigorous pursuit of research still continues. He holds 15 geophysical patents in his own name. His latest invention, the so-called "geograph"--popularly known as the "Thumper"?s described in two patents which were issued in recent weeks.

The first geophysical field work to attempt mapping subsurface geological structure by seismic reflections was done in 1921 near Ponca City, Oklahoma, by Haseman and Karcher operating as the Geological Engineering Company with financial backing of Oklahoma oilmen. McCollum and Eckhardt in Washington, D. C., were retained as consultants to help evaluate the anticipated seismic reflection records. The Geological Engineering Company had been formed after encouraging results in spare time tests with the Bureau of Standards' sound-ranging equipment in a rock quarry near Washington. Unfortunately, the reflection records in Oklahoma failed to satisfy the backers, and the Geological Engineering Company ended the first season of field work with a deficit of $13,000. Mr. McCollum, who was then in charge of the field work, assumed this liability by taking over the assets of the Geological Engineering Company which consisted of one Ford pick-up truck, the few pieces of seismic equipment, and several seismic patent applications which McCollum had assigned to the company. After this settlement the Geological Engineering Company was permitted to die a natural death.

McCollum's enthusiasm for seismograph exploration was not killed by this first apparent failure, and he continued experimentation for two years, which he describes as "...a period full of troubles and heartaches due chiefly to trying to float a $50,000 research project on a $1.98 budget." These early tests anticipated many later developments which are now standard practice. For example, air shooting was done by firing "Italian bombs" up to 2000 ft to get incident plane waves. By the fall of 1923 McCollum succeeded to enlist financial support by the Atlantic Refining Company through cooperation of its chief geologist, Mr. J. E. Branfley.

The work for Atlantic was done for its subsidiary Cortez Oil Corporation in La Gatero, Mexico, 60 km southwest of Tampico. New equipment was built, and the field work was begun in March 1924. Both reflection and refraction were used. The refraction methods used the so-called "Fan Shooting." Reflection shooting was done in profiles. Prior to the seismic survey, which the Atlantic people called "the McCollum experiment," two dry holes had been drilled in La Gatero, and a third location had been made. The seismic results condemned Site No. 3, and a new location was drilled. No. 4 also was dry due to lack of porosity in the lime, but the seismic findings were confirmed. La Gatero No. 4, drilled in 1924, is probably the first well ever drilled on a seismograph location. While La Gatero No. 4 was being drilled, the seismic work was moved to the Golden Lane Area, Lot 199, Amatlan. A drilling location was selected on the seismic results in May 1924, and the drill not only confirmed the seismograph picture but also brought in a 400 barrel/day producer. This is probably the first producing oil well to be drilled on a seismographic location. Burton McCollum's perseverance and ingenuity had launched a new American Industry--seismic exploration for oil!

Success and well-deserved honors have come to Burton McCollum. His alma mater, the University of Kansas, recently awarded him a Citation for Distinguished Service, which in other universities is equivalent to an honorary doctor's degree. He has been a member of the honorary physics society, Sigma Xi, since 1902 and holds highly coveted memberships in the Washington Academy of Science and in the Cosmos Club. He is a long-time member of AIEE and was awarded an Honorary Life Membership in the Houston Section of our Society in 1949. Also, he is one of the select company of pioneer geophysicists who holds charter membership in SEG.

Burton McCollum's contributions of inventions, ideas, and practical applications over the years have had a profound influence in the development of geophysical exploration to its present high estate. As professional geophysicists the world over, we all owe him our deep gratitude, respect, and honor. The award which we now confer is the highest honor our Society has the power to bestow. In its 29-year history, Honorary Life Membership as been awarded, prior to this meeting, only twelve times, and there are now seven living Honorary Members. MI: McCollum, you, sir, are a member of a select and distinguished company.

Mr. Burton McCollum, charter member, inspired leader, distinguished geophysicist, it gives me sincere pleasure and a high sense of honor to be the spokesman for our Society in handing you this Scroll Certificate of Honorary Life Membership in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. It is a token of our high esteem and respect.