Today, a fable about the long road from a dream to
reality. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
John Montgomery graduated in
science from Santa Clara College in 1880.
California was still a frontier. But in that sleepy
land, 20th-century America was exploding into
Montgomery dreamt of flying. So he went back to his
family ranch near San Diego to make an airplane.
First he made two flapping-wing ornithopters. They
failed, but he did better with his next try. He
made a fixed-wing glider and hauled it up a hill.
Facing a gentle breeze, he took a small hop and was
airborne. He skimmed downhill for a hundred feet or
so. On the second flight he crashed and wrecked the
He built two more gliders. The first one -- the one
that flew -- had wings with cambered airfoils, like
the wings that would carry the Wright Brothers into
the sky twenty years later. Next, he gave up
cambered airfoils, but he added a control surface
that would respond to gusts. That one didn't fly.
He put the airfoils back on the third glider but
gave up the control surfaces. That one didn't fly
We heard no more from Montgomery until 1893. He was
secretive about what he'd done. Then Octave Chanute organized a
conference on flight in Chicago. Montgomery showed
up to tell Chanute that he was the one American
who'd really flown.
I've just told Montgomery's story as Chanute
repeated it in his conference report. Montgomery
read Chanute's proofs, and he okayed them. But when
the Wrights and others succeeded, Montgomery began
to chafe. In 1909 he wrote his own book on flight.
He began revising history. His old flight expanded
from 100 to 600 feet. He claimed other flights as
He also found a champion named Victor Loughead.
Loughead wrote two books about flight and kept
adding to Montgomery's legend. He was, according to
Victor Loughead, one of the great mathematical
thinkers of all time and the inventor of airplane
controls. By the time Loughead was done, Hollywood
had made a movie about Montgomery.
The wake of the Wright Brothers is full of stories
like this -- full of might-have-beens. But Victor
Loughead had two young half-brothers -- Allen and
Malcom. They were also bitten by the bug of flight.
And they were doers, not storytellers. In 1912 they
made a neat little seaplane that really flew.
They also changed the old Scottish spelling of
their name. They changed it from Loughead to
Lockheed. And their Lockheed Company has been
making great airplanes ever since. Victor
Loughead's younger brothers finally gave
Montgomery's frustrated, overblown dream its
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Crouch, T.D., A Dream of Wings: Americans and
the Airplane, 1875-1905, Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, 1989. Ch. 5.
Howard, F., Wilbur and Orville: A Biography
of the Wright Brothers. New York: Ballantine
Books, 1987, Ch. 42.
Siuru, B. and Lockheed, A., Lockheed: A Legacy of
Speed. Mechanical Engineering, May
1990, pp. 60-64.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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