After the success of the book and film Hidden Figures which generated much deserved recognition for NASA employees Katherine Jonson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the book with the eye catching title of Hidden Genius: Frank Mann, the Black Engineer Behind Howard Hughes came to our attention. It is the story of Frank Calvin Mann, as told by H. T. Bryer.
For those who do not recognize the name, Frank Mann (1908-1992) was raised in Dayton, Texas. Frank got his first good look at an airplane when a World War I era biplane ran out of fuel and touched down for a landing in a field near his home. He was naturally gifted at fixing things and when he was a pre teen was already doing repairs on autos in the neighborhood.
When they were both still young men, Frank met the brilliant but eccentric Howard Hughes, Jr. and the two became life long friends, having a common bond of aviation in addition to both having knacks for invention and problem solving. During his high school years, with financial assistance from Hughes, Frank built his first airplane. Frank graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School, a segregated school at that time.
Frank entered nearby Prairie View A&M originally on a track to become a teacher like his mother and stepfather, but Frank withdrew after his first year. He felt the urge to become an engineer of either aeronautics or in the automotive and was academically capable of either. After searching for a suitable college that would also accept African American students, he entered the University of Minnesota and finally graduated from Ohio State University.
(Image credit: LA Life Magazine)
By the 1930s, Frank reunited with Hughes, working for a time with Hughes Aircraft and later beginning to work as a contractor with some of the other major aircraft companies on the West Coast.
Although this story apparently is unconfirmed (see readers’ comments below), Frank told of flying for the Army of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as the country came under attack in the mid 1930s from the Italian forces under dictator Mussolini. In the late 1930s, Frank served for a short time as an instructor of African American pilots at Tuskegee Institute. After the United States entered World War II, Frank told of working again with Hughes in various capacities for the U. S. military. He worked again with Hughes after the war as the latter was building and financing the so called “Spruce Goose,” a gigantic (for the time) flying boat made entirely of wood. However, the aircraft was not completed in time to contribute to the war effort and never went into production beyond the first working prototype.
In the late 1940s, Frank had turned his attention to the growing automotive industry, building custom cars for celebrities. Two of his other automotive achievements were building a fiberglass bodied car for a Disney executive that later appeared to strongly influence the design of the first Chevrolet Corvette and building a custom car that he called the “Baby LeSabre” after the F-86 airplane. It was built from a salvaged Crosley station wagon and included parts from at least a half dozen other cars. Its design included styling cues from Harley Earl’s 1950 concept car for General Motors called the LeSabre.
When he was living in California, Frank built a small scale steam locomotive entirely from scratch, as there were no previously fabricated parts available for him to use. He gave free rides to neighborhood children and his beloved dog. At last report, the train was being restored somewhere in Texas. Mann actually built two such trains and one of them has been donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
Frank also told of contributing to certain projects at NASA, including the strengthening of the 747 body to accept the Space Shuttle. He officially retired in 1972 and returned to Houston to attend to his parents. He then opened up a small automotive repair shop which is where he was working when he and the author met.
The book is a fairly quick read and includes many other interesting stories about Mann’s life. Frank died in Houston in 1992 at the age of 84.
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