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No. 432:
John Montgomery

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 being.

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 glider.

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 either.

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 well.

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 earthly home.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

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.