Skunk Works® Origin Story
The Origin Story
In 1943, the U.S. Army’s Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its dire need for a jet fighter to counter a rapidly growing German jet threat.
One month later, a young engineer by the name of Clarence "Kelly" L. Johnson and his team of young engineers hand delivered the XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter proposal to the ATSC. Quickly the go-ahead was given for Lockheed to start development on the United States' first jet fighter effort. It was June of 1943 and this project marked the birth of what would become the Skunk Works® with Kelly Johnson at its helm.
The formal contract for the XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until October 16, 1943; four months after work had already begun. This would prove to be a common practice within the Skunk Works. Many times a customer would come to the Skunk Works with a request, and on a handshake the project would begin, no contracts in place, no official submittal process.
Kelly Johnson and his team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required.
What allowed Kelly to operate the Skunk Works so effectively and efficiently was his unconventional organizational approach. He broke the rules, challenging the current bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress. His philosophy is spelled out in his "14 rules and practices."
How the Skunk Works® Got Its Name
It was the wartime year of 1943 when Kelly Johnson brought together a hand-picked team of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation engineers and manufacturing people to rapidly and secretly complete the XP-80 project. Because the war effort was in full swing there was no space available at the Lockheed facility for Johnson’s effort. Consequently, Johnson's organization operated out of a rented circus tent next to a manufacturing plant that produced a strong odor, which permeated the tent.
Each member of Johnson’s team was cautioned that design and production of the new XP-80 must be carried out in strict secrecy. No one was to discuss the project outside the small organization, and team members were even warned to be careful how they answered the phones.
A team engineer named Irv Culver was a fan of Al Capp's newspaper comic strip, "Li'l Abner," in which there was a running joke about a mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the "Skonk Works." There, a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes and other strange ingredients.
One day, Culver's phone rang and he answered it by saying "Skonk Works, inside man Culver speaking." Fellow employees quickly adopted the name for their mysterious division of Lockheed. "Skonk Works" became "Skunk Works."
The once informal nickname is now the registered trademark of the company: Skunk Works®.