If asked to name pioneers in aviation, most people respond with the Wright Brothers. But there are others whose research in aero-dynamics set the stage for the Wrights' success. Such men as Chanute, Langley, Lilienthal, and Montgomery played significant roles in developing the knowledge required for ultimate mastery of human flight. The contributions of John J. Montgomery are not fully recognized, but such scientific greats as Alexander Graham Bell gave him the accolade he deserves: "All subsequent attempts in aviation must begin with the Montgomery machine."
John Montgomery was a native Californian, born in 1858 in Yuba City. His father Zachariah Montgomery was a lawyer, public servant and journalist. His mother Ellen Evoy Montgomery was the daughter of the celebrated Temescal pioneer Bridget Shannon Evoy "probably the only woman who led a covered wagon train across the plains in 1849-1850."
Montgomery began his primary education at Notre Dame Academy in Marysville, finishing his secondary education at St. Joseph's Academy in Oakland. He attended Santa Clara College for a year before transferring to St. Ignatius College in San Francisco, where he received a B.S. degree in 1879 and an M.S. degree in 1880.
Montgomery's interest in flying began as a boy, when he became intrigued by cloud movement and the flight of birds. His keen mind and excellent education enabled him to develop this interest into a life of scientific research, dedicated to a full understanding of the laws of aerodynamics and their application.
In 1882 he joined his family at their farm near Fruitland in San Diego County, where he soon preempted space in the barn for a laboratory. The following year marked a milestone in aviation history - John Montgomery made man's first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air craft. In a letter to his sister, dated December 23, 1885, Montgomery wrote of his work:
... My attention is still fixed on my flying machine, and I am getting along fast enough to suit myself. Since I last wrote you, I have performed hundreds of experiments and discovered some important facts and laws. I have had many failures and discouragements, but have become convinced more than ever of the correctness of my ideas and plans.
Continued research led to a paper which he read to the Aeronautical Conference at Chicago in early August, 1893. The original of that paper, containing the first statements of the principles basic to all flying, is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
Returning from Chicago, Montgomery joined the faculty of Mount St. Joseph's College at Rohnerville, where he taught mathematics and science while continuing studies of air- and water-current impacts on edged surfaces, parabolic and plane. From St. Joseph's he wrote his sister on August 30, 1894:
Well, now for science! Some of my work is beginning to tell. A work on flying has
been published and my experiments have been described; and three (men) have been
mentioned as giving the most reliable data, viz: Maxim, Lilienthal and Montgomery.
The author (Octave Chanute) has been writing to me for further notes on my work.
Since my return here I have been making wonderful progress in the study of the laws of aerodynamics ... to test whether my calculations were correct, I was planning certain experiments ...
When the book (Chanute's) was sent me, I found that certain scientists performed these experiments and noticed certain peculiar phenomena, but could not explain them. So, I am happy to know that I possess the secret ...
Spearman believes Montgomery constructed two small airplanes at Rohnerville - The Pink Maiden, a tandem-wing model with a three-foot-six-inch wingspread and The Buzzard, a four-foot wing-spread model. Certainly the wind currents rising up the Eel River to sweep the bluff where the college stood were ample for observation and experimentation. Upon his return from St. Joseph's, Montgomery tested these models at the Leonard Ranch near Aptos on Monterey Bay by flying them from a trestle. Montgomery's sister recalled that he weighted The Pink Maiden, then "turned it up-side down, and started it from a height ... He said that in ten feet it righted itself, just as a cat will fall on its feet." Montgomery was mastering techniques for insuring stability in his experimental models.
The exact dates of Montgomery's affiliation with St. Joseph's are uncertain. His sister reported in later years that upon his return from Chicago in 1893, he left to teach at Rohnerville. Reference to "my return" in his letter of August 30, 1894, indicates he had taken some vacation at the close of the spring term in 1894, but was back for the 1894-95 school year at the school. Other reports from the Leonard family indicate he tested his Pink Maiden and Buzzard models on their ranch in the summer of 1896, after his return from Rohnerville. If he developed these models the previous year, it appears he taught at St. Joseph's during the spring of 1894 and academic years 1894-95, and 1895-96, but there is no documentation of this.