Ben Lomond author gives prolific inventor, John J. Montgomery, the long-overdue credit he deserves
Few Santa Cruzans know that some of the breakthrough experiments in aviation history occurred right in their own backyard. When humankind began to believe in the seemingly impossible notion of controlled flight in the early 1900s, the Wright brothers held the spotlight for their powered aerial flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Meanwhile, another man’s breakthrough inventions took to the skies above Aptos.
“Aptos was the Kitty Hawk of the West,” says Craig Harwood. The Ben Lomond resident recently co-authored the book “Quest for Flight,” which tells the tale of a prolific inventor named John J. Montgomery, whose breakthroughs in human-controlled air flight—many of which took place in the Santa Cruz region—fueled the legacy of American aviation. “It was this significant transition from idea and model to being fully demonstrated in a controlled flight hundreds of feet above the earth,” he explains.
The story hits close to home for Harwood, who is the great-great-grandson of Zachariah Montgomery, John Montgomery’s father. So together with technical writer Gary B. Fogel, Harwood wrote “Quest for Flight” in an effort to share Montgomery’s life, inventions, and contributions to the birth of modern aviation with the world.
“Here’s a guy, a lone inventor, who attempted to do what everybody thought was impossible. One of the most technologically challenging things in modern history was to solve the problem of [heavier than air] flight,” says Harwood. “He took that on, believing he could do it, and he did it very scientifically. He had a lot of practical skills, so he could apply scientific research to practical engineering. He could build these things and fly them. I think that’s really fascinating that one person could do that, relying on their own skills, talents and education.”
Montgomery was responsible for the first large-scale demonstrations of flight in California’s history, Harwood says, noting that not only was the inventor able to single-handedly solve the heavier-than-air problem, but he also figured out propeller theory.
“He had propeller theory down well enough where it was successfully adopted by the first American airship, and then suddenly all the American airships had this propeller,” Harwood says. “He was very forward-thinking, and he just didn’t allow obstacles to impede his progress. Every time he was hit with an obstacle, he overcame it—and he eventually proved it and demonstrated it publicly.”
“Quest for Flight” puts forth the notion that because Montgomery was not as attention-seeking as other inventors at the time, namely the Wright Brothers, his lack of self-promotion kept him from receiving some of his due credit.
“He wasn’t a greedy person and he gave [his inventions] to society,” says Harwood. “And people who do that tend not to get remembered or given credit. People who exploit the business angle—the first to successfully do that—are the ones who get the credit. And the Wrights were able to successfully do that.”
Because “Quest for Flight” paints the Wright brothers in a less adoring light than usual—for one, the authors make a point to expose Orville Wright’s ultimately successful campaign to discredit Montgomery and his inventions—its publication has been met with some controversy. Harwood says one reviewer flat out refused to review the book because he didn’t like the “anti-Wright stance” the authors took.
“You still have people who just don’t want to know about it because it challenges traditional aviation history, and the Wright brothers’ side of the story,” says Harwood. In fact, he adds, to this day even the Smithsonian is making noise that Montgomery was really a nonentity in aviation history.
So, in building a case for Montgomery, the authors and their University of Oklahoma Press editor were bent on focusing on the facts.
“We tried to make [the book] interesting and develop some of these real-life characters, while at the same time keeping close to the factual information,” says Harwood. “There’s this controversial angle to Montgomery’s legacy, brought in by the Wrights and their advocates, so our challenge was to show this was a legitimate person and his story was real.”
Despite inherent challenges, Harwood says the process of creating “Quest for Flight” was joyous.
“There were a lot of little surprises all along the way, and we were making discoveries all the time,” he says. “This idea that the story’s been lost, and as you’re going along you’re making all these connections, it’s like you’re putting together a large puzzle.”
Harwood says his favorite discovery was the interchange between Montgomery and pioneer balloonist Thomas Baldwin.
“Montgomery’s interaction with [Baldwin] had a huge impact on the larger subject of aviation history in America,” he says. “[Baldwin] was just one of these classic characters. This guy was able to see potential and talent in people and exploit it very successfully, and he did it over and over all throughout the story.”
Montgomery’s story, while generally overlooked, did inspire the 1946 Hollywood film, Gallant Journey. In addition, the publication of “Quest for Flight” has inspired Santa Clara University professor Janet Giddings and veteran producer Veronica Craven to bring Montgomery’s tale to the silver screen once again.
“It’s exciting,” says Harwood. “I hope the film will get even more people interested.”
‘Quest for Flight’ is available for purchase from online booksellers, in bookstores, and directly from the University of Oklahoma press. Visit oupress.com. Photo by Paul Totah, Hiller Aviation Museum