John J. Montgomery Obelisk – Santa Clara, California - Atlas Obscura

John J. Montgomery Obelisk

Today's aerospace industry can be traced back to one man and his gliders. 


In 1961, employees at the Lockheed Corporation, part of what is now the aerospace company and the world’s largest defense contractor Lockheed Martin, paid a peculiar tribute to a Bay Area inventor. They helped reconstruct the machine that killed him. A better tribute might be this gray obelisk at Santa Clara University, which commemorates a spectacular display he provided for the people of Santa Clara. 

John J. Montgomery, one of several “fathers of aviation,” died in 1911 while testing his new glider in the Evergreen area in San Jose. It was a somber end for the inventor, who is credited with America’s first manned, controlled flights of heavier-than-air machines.

In the early 20th century, Montgomery, a professor at Santa Clara College (now University) demonstrated the remarkable abilities of his gliders on the college grounds. On April 29, 1905, Montgomery and his frequent collaborator, the professional parachutist Daniel Maloney, pulled off a technological—and death-defying—feat. Pulled by a hot air balloon, Maloney ascended into the sky inside the glider The Santa Clara, named for the occasion. At an eye-watering 4,000 feet, Maloney cut loose and elegantly glided for 20 minutes, landing safely. The duo, over the following months, repeated this spectacle several times, with Popular Mechanics calling it the “Most Daring Test of Flying-Machine Ever Made.” 

Sadly, it was indeed too daring. One test at the college campus, a few months later, ended up killing Maloney, and Montgomery was not long for the world either. After a pause of several years, Montgomery flew again, with the support of a local flight fanatic, Victor Loughead. But in 1911, Montgomery crashed his glider on its maiden flight, dying of his wounds a handful of hours later. Reportedly, his last words were, “How is the machine?” 

As for Victor, he and his mechanically minded brothers all remained fascinated by Montgomery’s work, with Allan Loughead acquiring the rights to a Montgomery glider to put an engine in it. Later, Loughead changed his name to Lockheed, and the aircraft company he founded still lends its name to Lockheed Martin. Fittingly, the obelisk within Santa Clara University, erected in 1946, bears praise from Alexander Graham Bell: “All subsequent attempts in aviation must begin with the Montgomery machine.”

Know Before You Go

The obelisk is located in the Mission Gardens, in front of the small observatory.

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September 11, 2020

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