Lyman Wiswell Gilmore, 1876-1951


Historians who have attempted to write about Lyman Gilmore, Jr. have done so with mixed feelings of admiration and frustration. Those who talked with Lyman often could not distinguish truth from fantasy and, as Kenneth Johnston wrote, "the extreme secrecy with which he (Lyman) cloaked his early activities has limited his fame and prevented any detailed verification."

Lyman Gilmore, Jr. was born in Cowlitz County, Washington on June 11, 1874. He cared little for work around the farm. When Sarah Gilmore read the Bible aloud to her children, it was Lyman, Jr. who appeared to listen with noticeable devotion.

Lyman's enchantment with birds in flight, and his experiments with handmade bird-like objects, caused his father to refer to his son's fascination with mechanical flight as "tomfoolery".

Gilmore moved to Red Bluff, California early in the 1890's where he built a glider with a eighteen-foot wing span. Towed by a horse, the glider flew, but when the horse realized what was above, it bolted.lyman

From the time Gilmore left Red Bluff and arrived in Grass Valley in the early 1900's he was busy with gold mining and aeronautical experiments.

These years are shrouded in mystery. Lyman continually improved the design and balance of his small model aircraft. But when and how did he gain his knowledge of gliders? And what was in his correspondence with the War Department, The U.S. Patent Office, Samuel Langley, and the Wright Brothers? And, finally, is there any reason to believe Lyman Gilmore attached a steam engine to one of his gliders and flew, more than a year before the Wright Brother's first powered flight, as the inventor in later years, wrote and said he did?

Lyman's letter to Langley was allegedly written after Langley's failures to launch a manned aircraft off a ship in the Potomac, just two weeks before the Wright Brother's heralded flight of December 18, 1903. Langley's response to Lyman was said to have been discouraging, the Easterner accusing the Californian's ideas on balance to be unfounded. It is interesting that Gilmore was awarded two patents for steam engines, the first of which was submitted in 1902.

Eyewitnesses do not exist to verify any heavier than air flights during 1902. But two large and comparatively advanced aircraft that Lyman built in 1908 compel the curious to speculate on earlier experiments with smaller aircraft.

The two 1908 aircraft and their hanger comprised the Gilmore Aerodrome. These aircraft were startling revelations to the aeronautical engineers who saw the airplanes before they burned up in 1935. The small monoplane flew only short hops. Some believe that a more experienced pilot might have gotten the plane into a sustained flight.

The larger pane was incredible. While it was not flown or tested, the machine was designed much like passenger planes that wouldn't appear for twenty-five years. The plane, with its closed cabin fuselage, weighed more than 1,600 pounds. It appeared that the inventor was far ahead of his contemporaries in aircraft design and instrumentation.

gilmore-headerLyman Gilmore did not confine his technical activities to airplane construction. He is said to have developed one of the earliest versions of a rotary snowplow during the 1900's, an experience that may have generated his life-long distrust of those interested in his inventions. A company offered him $10,000 for the rights to produce the snowplow. When Lyman held out for $20,000, the company ignored the inventor's response and developed a prototype based on the same ideas.

In 1935, Lyman's airplane hanger and the two aging monoplanes were destroyed by fire. The printed story indicated accidental causes, but another version hinted that the fire was retribution for a dead dog ostensibly shot by Gilmore. The fire cancelled plans to exhibit the larger monoplane at the World Fair in Chicago.

After the fire, Lyman spent most of his time working on his mining interests. He gained financial backing from prominent Hollywood investors in 1935. He became suspicious that his control was being taken over by these interests so he blew up the mine and entered litigation to reestablish his ownership. He regained control the Iowa Mine six years later. The gold, however, eluded the inventor. By the 1940's he was old, poor, and unable to convince anyone of the value of the mine.

For years, a group of murderers and thieves known as the Santos Gang terrorized miners for their gold. When they paid Lyman a visit they found him ill. They threatened him brutally but Lyman said he had no gold, which was probably the truth. They left him alone convinced he was penniless and near death.

Lyman died in the Nevada City hospital on February 18, 1951. Before his death the hospital cut his hair, shaved his beard, and burned his old overcoat, all of which Lyman maintained were essential to protect him from disease. In his will Lyman requested his executors to distribute his estate "in such a manner as will promote the knowledge and science of mechanical engineering."

Excerpted from:
"Lyman Gilmore Jr. - Aeronautical Pioneer" by Stephen Barber
Nevada County Historical Society, Volume 30, No. 2. April, 1976)


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