Lyman Gilmore: an aviation pioneer that history almost forgot
July 17, 2014
Popular Aviation issues 15 & 18.
Nevada County Historical Society article “Aeronautical Pioneer” by Stephen Barber.
The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum
The history books will tell you that the first powered, controlled and sustained heavier-than-air manned flight took place at Kill Devil Hills four miles south of Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.
Orville Wright, an aviator from Dayton, Ohio, took off in a Flyer he had constructed with his brother, Wilbur, and flew a grand total of 120 feet, staying in the air for 12 seconds and flying at a speed of about 7 miles per hour as three members of a life-saving crew, a local businessman and a young boy from town looked on.
While mankind had found ways to explore the heavens in previous years using hot-air balloon technology and gliders, which had to take off from a high elevation in order to sustain flight, the Wright brothers’ mild excursion into the air was widely hailed as the first instance in which a powered aircraft took off and sustained flight.
However, Lyman Gilmore, a longtime Grass Valley resident, local eccentric, reclusive engineer and inventor who some painted as a madman, claimed that he actually performed the momentous feat on May 17, 1902, nearly 18 months before the Wright brothers achieved their lasting fame.
(Lyman) Gilmore arrived in Grass Valley in the early 1900s, looking to put his engineering savvy to some practical use in the gold-mining industry …
The lack of documentation or witnesses, coupled with the fact that many of his contemporaries thought Gilmore was blooming mad, is one of the cardinal reasons the inventor’s claim is given little stock among experts in the field of aviation history.
Gilmore wore a heavy trench coat every day of the year, even in the dog days of summer, and never shaved his beard or bathed as he believed this unhygienic approach kept him free of disease.
Despite his eccentricities, Gilmore was undoubtedly a talented and prolific inventor as he was awarded two patents in the early 20th century for a steam engine specifically fitted for aircraft.
However, Gilmore possessed nothing of the showman or fame seeker that drove some of his contemporary aviation pioneers but was notoriously reclusive and secretive regarding his design and inventions.
Some historians ascribe his secretive nature to the fact that he was ripped off after having invented a version of the rotary snow plow.
He attempted to sell his design to a company and after being offered a sum he considered too low, he held out for more, only to find out that the company developed a slightly altered version using his design as a prototype.
Lyman Gilmore was born in Beaver Creek, Wash., on June 11, 1874.
As a young man, his passion for flight reportedly derived from watching birds and pondering the physics that would explain their ability to sustain themselves in the air.
Gilmore’s father, a farmer eking out a hardscrabble living, did not take kindly to what he considered Gilmore’s impractical musings or his repeated experiments with various aircraft, including gliders.
To escape his father’s derision, Gilmore moved to Red Bluff, Calif., in the early 1890s and soon after, in 1894, Gilmore attempted his first flight in a glider with a wingspan of 18 feet, which was towed by a horse.
Gilmore arrived in Grass Valley in the early 1900s, looking to put his engineering savvy to some practical use in the gold-mining industry that was still flourishing in the Sierra foothills.
It was during this time that he began corresponding with other aeronautical engineers, including the Wright Brothers and Samuel P. Langley, who unsuccessfully attempted to fly a manned aircraft off of a ship afloat in the Potomac River just two weeks before the flight at Kitty Hawk.
Gilmore wrote Langley with recommendations on how to balance his fuselage, recommendations which were summarily ignored.
In the early 1900s, Gilmore designed two large monoplanes that he would eventually construct and store in his “aerodrome” at his ranch.
The second of the planes, a large 1,600-pound aircraft with a closed-cabin fuselage, failed to take off in front of a large crowd in 1912, but some historians believe the design principles served as a template for the large passenger planes that would follow in the years to come.
Some aviation historians assert that his smaller plane could have successfully taken off in 1911 had the crankshaft not broken and had a more experienced pilot been enlisted.
In 1935, a fire consumed Gilmore’s aerodrome, destroying the two planes and much of his aeronautical drawings and plans he had written, rendering it more difficult to determine the exact nature of his contributions to the dawn of aeronautical science.
Many historians argue that Lyman Gilmore was a charlatan, prone to falsehoods and gross exaggerations about his role in the history of aviation.
Others maintain that he was a brilliant, if eccentric, inventor whose own voyage into the skies behind a powered, heavier-than-air plane preceded that of the more heralded instance by the Wright brothers.
The only reason the event is obscured by history is Gilmore’s lack of social skills, self-promotion and marketing savvy.
Gilmore never married and died poor after the many mining enterprises he undertook never yielded the lucky strike he sought.
The Lyman Gilmore Middle School in Grass Valley bears his name and serves as an enduring testament to one of the more colorful citizens of western Nevada County.
Matthew Renda is a former staff member and a freelance writer for The Union.