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  • Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West by Craig S. Harwood and Gary B. Fogel
  • Richard Byers (bio)
Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West. By Craig S. Harwood and Gary B. Fogel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xiv+242. $29.95.

In this fascinating and well-researched work, authors Craig Harwood and Gary Fogel take on a significant challenge: revising the traditional narrative of U.S. aviation history and shifting its geographical origins from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to the Otay Mountains of Southern California. As their research indicates, the ranks of the founding fathers of U.S. aviation should include a prominent place for their work's subject, California scientist John J. Montgomery, whose applied experiments with gliders during the 1880s and '90s, based on his observations of birds, stake a powerful claim for his inclusion alongside more famous early aviation pioneers like Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers. Indeed, their research indicates that Montgomery's scientific achievements stretched well beyond aviation, including foundational work in fields as diverse as ornithology, applied telegraphy, electrical engineering, rubber vulcanization, petroleum combustion, airship design and propulsion, and electrical engineering.

Working largely alone and isolated and without substantial financial resources, Montgomery designed, built, and successfully flew several controlled gliders in Southern California before the turn of the twentieth century, the first man in the United States to achieve these feats. For many years a faculty member of California's Santa Clara College, where the archival collection that supports this work is now housed, Montgomery was a quintessential Gilded Age scientist, inventor, and scholar, pursuing and researching simultaneous interests in numerous fields and developing new technological approaches that yielded more than ten patents in petroleum burning, rubber vulcanization, and electrical generation, as well as in aviation.

Montgomery pursued these multiple research agendas not out of desire for wealth and fame, but rather as part of an applied, altruistic research agenda designed to extend scientific knowledge. As such, he avidly avoided public recognition, particularly with his gliding research, due to contemporary skepticism regarding the viability of heavier-than-air flight. This reticence would later cost Montgomery dearly, Harwood and Fogel argue, [End Page 669] both in terms of wider peer and public recognition, and also in terms of patent royalties.

Before these issues were resolved, Montgomery died while piloting one of his gliders on 31 October 1911. As a result of his premature death, his groundbreaking exploits became obscured, as other early aviation designers, in particular the Wright brothers—whom the authors single out for particular criticism—more effectively self-promoted their efforts, reaped far greater rewards, and then subsequently explicitly downplayed Montgomery's contributions to U.S. and global aviation development. Within this narrative, Orville Wright appears not in his traditional role as hero, but rather as villain, consciously and deliberately seeking to minimize Montgomery's efforts in order to protect his and his brother's patent rights and reputations. Patent politics proved a recurring theme in early aviation development, and legal brinksmanship often played into the hands of those whose pockets were deepest; as a solitary researcher located far from the financial centers of fin-de-siècle America, Montgomery lacked both the means and desire to play this often brutal game—an approach that would deny him the ability to fully capitalize on his pioneering applied research.

At times, Harwood and Fogel's narrative stretches the limits of their evidence and risks sliding into polemic, but they have convinced this reviewer that Montgomery deserves greater recognition than he currently enjoys. His generous and selfless support, in the form of instruction and mentorship, of other early U.S. aviation pioneers like Curtiss and the Lougheads proved pivotal in assisting the sustainable ascent of both the Curtiss and Lockheed corporations, both of which later became cornerstones of U.S. aviation in the twentieth century. As Harwood and Fogel also show, Montgomery's glider designs and research in applied wind dynamics also heavily influenced early aircraft and glider design in Europe, particularly in France and Switzerland. Well-written and containing many beautiful sketches, as well as...


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