This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

1st Powered Flight…??


May 15, 1902:  Lyman Gilmore – First Person to Fly a Powered Craft…or not?

Lyman Wiswell Gilmore, Jr. was an aviation pioneer.  Lyman built a steam-powered airplane and may have flown it on May 15, 1902.  1 year and 7 months before Wright Bros, Gilmore made a downhill take off, flew 3 miles and returned.  Proofs of his claim were lost in a 1935 hangar fire.

There are photographs from 1898 showing Gilmore’s machine, but none showing it in the air. The claims of the aircraft achieving flight are unconfirmed, and given the weight evident by the grounded aircraft photos, the possibility of flight is disputed.

Gilmore_plane_drawing gilmore1


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 on June 11, 1874, at Beaver Creek, Thurston County, in the State of Washington. He had three sisters and seven brothers.  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.

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.  And 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 plane 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.


Lyman 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.


Like three other of his brothers, Lyman never married.  Late in his life he was set upon in his small cold cabin by murderous thieves who had come to relieve him of his supposed cache of gold. He was very ill at the time and managed to convince them that he was, in fact, without any funds of any sort, gold or currency.

In much of his aeronautical work, Gilmore was ably assisted by his brother, Charles. He continued to work on drawing of aero planes until his death in the Nevada County (California) Hospital on February 18, 1951.


According to his grandniece, Caroline Boudreaux Sullivan, and his niece, Gilmore thought of himself as an engineer rather than an aviator. Caroline Boudreaux Sullivan’s Mother (Lyman Gilmore, Jr.’s, niece) recalls that he neither shaved nor cut his hair nor bathed, for he believed if he did so, he would “diminish his strength and vitality.”

LG gilmore01

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.”

First Flight Attempts & Other Goofy Flying Machines

Vintage Film circa 1931


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2 thoughts on “1st Powered Flight…??

  1. Just following studying this I think is truly informative , i appreciate your time and effort to compose this posts.

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