by Carl Kurfess
The term “Skunk Works” came from Al Capp’s satirical, hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner, which was immensely popular in the 1940s and ’50s. The “Skonk Works” was a dilapidated factory located on the remote outskirts of Dogpatch, in the backwoods of Kentucky. According to the strip, scores of locals were done in yearly by the toxic fumes of the concentrated “skonk oil”, which was brewed and barreled daily by “Big Barnsmell” (known as the lonely “inside man” at the Skonk Works), by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes into a smoldering still, for some mysterious, unspecified purpose.
Originally, the “Skunk works” was a Lockheed research-and-development operation where the SR-71 and U-2 spy planes were developed. The original Lockheed facility, during the development of the P-80 Shooting Star, was located adjacent to a malodorous plastics factory. According to a memoir, an engineer jokingly showed up to work one day wearing a Civil Defense gas mask. To comment on the smell and the secrecy the project entailed, another engineer, referred to the facility as “Skonk Works”. As the development was very secret, the employees were told to be careful even with how they answered phone calls. One day, when the Department of the Navy was trying to reach the Lockheed management for the P-80 project, the call was accidentally transferred to an engineer’s desk, who answered the phone in his trademark fashion of the time, by picking up the phone and stating “Skonk Works, inside man here”. “What?” replied the voice at the other end. “Skonk Works”, the engineer repeated. The name stuck.