Taking Flight Before Kitty Hawk

In 1911, John Montgomery designed The Evergreen, his most advanced “aeroplane.” It is pictured here with Montgomery at the controls. SAN DIEGO AEROSPACE MUSEUM

In 1911, John Montgomery designed The Evergreen, his most advanced “aeroplane.” It is pictured here with Montgomery at the controls.

The wind started to blow, and the young man sitting in the glider he had constructed shouted “Now!” to his brother, who was positioned in front of the craft, holding onto a rope attached to the glider’s nose. As his brother sprinted ahead, the rope grew taut, and the craft rose into the air. The pilot, hanging from a bar at the bottom of his glider, sailed downhill against the wind some 600 feet before he landed on his feet, exhilarated and unscathed. It was August 28, 1883, and John Montgomery, who held two science degrees from St. Ignatius College, had just made aviation history as the first person to successfully fly a heavier-than-air craft. Montgomery named his 38-pound glider The Gull. The Wright Brothers’ first flight of a motorized airplane at Kitty Hawk was still 20 years away.

Since early childhood, John Montgomery had been fascinated by the flight of birds. By the time he was ready for college, he had developed a theory, later proven to be correct, that the precise curved surface of a bird’s wing provided the structure needed for lift during flight. He enrolled in Santa Clara College in 1874, but after one year, he transferred to St. Ignatius College to study with the eminent scientist Fr. Joseph Neri, S.J. Montgomery received his Bachelor of Science in 1878 and his Master of Science in 1879, both from St. Ignatius College. After his first successful glider flight in 1883, Montgomery continued his research and testing of glider plane designs, earned a doctorate in 1901, and joined the faculty at Santa Clara College. On April 29, 1905, Professor Montgomery launched a new glider from a hot air balloon 4,000 feet above the ground. Its pilot kept the craft aloft for 20 minutes, making figure eights in the sky at 60 miles per hour, before bringing the glider to a gentle landing before 1,000 spectators and reporters. One reporter called Montgomery’s craft an “aeroplane,” the first time the term was used. After this flight, Alexander Graham Bell noted that “all subsequent attempts in aviation must begin with the Montgomery machine.”

By the time St. Ignatius College moved to its new location on Van Ness in 1880, the school had granted 57 bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and John Montgomery was one of many graduates who achieved later prominence. In June, 1863, St. Ignatius College conferred  its first undergraduate college degree on Augustus J. Bowie, who subsequently earned a doctorate in engineering from the world famous School of Mines in Freiberg, Germany. He then pursued a successful career as an international mining consultant, superintendent, and author of books on hydraulic mining. His book, A Practical Treatise on Hydraulic Mining, became the standard textbook in the field, went through eleven editions, and earned him an international reputation. In June, 1867, the college granted its first graduate degree to Alexander O’Neill, a physician practicing in San Francisco. Dr. O’Neill obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Ignatius College, received his medical training in San Francisco, and returned to his alma mater to obtain a Master of Science degree.

John Montgomery, after earning two science degrees from St. Ignatius College, constructed and flew the world’s first successful glider in 1883. He later became a college professor.

By 1863, when the science program began at St. Ignatius College, there were already 474 students enrolled in all divisions of the institution, although the majority of these were not of college age. A sizable percentage of students attended elementary classes, corresponding to the present fourth, fifth, and sixth grades; preparatory classes, corresponding to the modern seventh and eighth grades; and grammar (college preparatory) classes, corresponding to the present four years of high school. Only the recipients of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, however, were eligible to participate in commencement ceremonies. The elementary school division was eliminated in 1897, the last eighth grade class was dropped in 1918, and the final separation of the high school division from the college division was made in 1959, when St. Ignatius High School became completely independent from the University of San Francisco. Today, both institutions continue to thrive. As of September 7, 2012, there were 10,017 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at USF, and 1,090 of those students were pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees in the sciences.

In May 2012, during USF’s 153rd commencement, 2,256 undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees were conferred on USF students, including 112 Bachelor of Science degrees and 58 Master of Science degrees. Among the undergraduate degree recipients, more than 27 percent reported on the graduating student survey that they “plan to attend graduate or professional school after graduation.” John Montgomery, Augustus Bowie, Alexander O’Neill, and many others like them from among the school’s first graduates began a fine tradition. From 1996 to 2012, the USF Pre-Professional Health Committee successfully placed 232 USF graduates into medical, dental, pharmacy, and optometry schools, including such top-ranked institutions as Cornell University, Stanford University, the University of California, San Francisco, and Yale University. From 2001 to 2012, more than 65 percent of USF’s applicants successfully gained admission to highly competitive medical schools, whereas only 45 percent of all applicants nationwide were admitted to medical schools during this same time period. USF has 6,511 living alumni with one or more science degrees from the school. Overall, USF’s living alumni include 390 physicians, 160 dentists, 660 engineers, and 400 college professors in all fields.

In 1863, Augustus Bowie became the first graduate of St. Ignatius College. He later earned a doctorate in engineering, became a successful mining consultant, and authored numerous books on hydraulic mining. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

In 1863, Augustus Bowie became the first graduate of St. Ignatius College. He later earned a doctorate in engineering, became a successful mining consultant, and authored numerous books on hydraulic mining. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Since the time of John Montgomery, Augustus Bowie, and Alexander O’Neill, the University of San Francisco has graduated thousands of individuals who have achieved their goals, and the institution has lived up to its Vision, Mission, and Values Statement of offering “undergraduate, graduate and professional students the knowledge and skills needed to succeed as persons and professionals, and the values and sensitivity to be men and women for others.”

Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian

One thought on “Taking Flight Before Kitty Hawk

  1. John Montgomery’s life story is told in the recent Univ. of Oklahoma Press book “Quest fro Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West”

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