McCollum papers emerge from Spencer Research Library as vital evidence in legal case

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Portrait of Burton McCollum by Kansas City artist Daniel MacMorris.Kenneth Spencer Research Library houses historic documents that have been useful evidence in a recent legal case. The papers of Burton McCollum played a central role in deciding the origin of designs for accelerometers—a claim disputed within the civil case.

“In short, a multinational company and its Chinese subsidiaries that make accelerometers claimed that their designs were brand new and had never been seen before, so they sued a much smaller upstart company utilizing similar designs,” said Dr. Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of Aerospace Engineering at KU and director of the Adaptive Aerostructures and Aircraft Design Laboratories, who testified as an expert witness in the proceedings. “Unfortunately for the big company, their designs were actually based in great part on designs and fabrication principles that were first laid down by Burton McCollum.”

A native Kansan, Burton McCollum graduated from KU in 1903 with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to invent the world’s first electric accelerometer, an electromechanical device used to measure acceleration forces. “To call him a ‘genius’ would be a wild understatement,” said Barrett-Gonzalez. “He is one of the most important geophysicists who ever lived as it was his use of his own specially designed accelerometers which enabled subterranean oil exploration.”

Prior to providing testimony, Barrett-Gonzalez researched primary sources at Spencer, combing through McCollum’s documents and papers. Barrett-Gonzalez’s research into McCollum’s original accelerometer documentation invalidated many claims made by the larger company, refuting statements that the accelerometer design was the company’s original design.

“My ‘Rebuttal Report’ drew heavily upon the material which I dug up in the Spencer library,” explained Barrett-Gonzalez. “Without the material in the Spencer, the case would have been dramatically weaker.”

“This use of material from the Burton McCollum papers is just another example of why we preserve documents for the future,” said Beth Whittaker, assistant dean of distinctive collections and director of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. “In addition to supporting research and teaching, archival collections can help confirm the past achievements of scholars like McCollum.”

In addition to the McCollum papers, Barrett-Gonzalez utilized resources from additional libraries at KU, including the Spahr Engineering Library. “This whole case really was a great triumph for reinforcing the critical and indispensable nature of not just KU Libraries, but libraries around the world and associated first-source research,” said Barrett-Gonzalez.

To learn more about the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, visit their webpage. One of the top 50 libraries in the Association of Research Libraries by volumes held, and the largest library system in Kansas, KU Libraries advance discovery, innovation and learning for KU, the state and a rapidly expanding community of world scholars.



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