Warren G. Grimes
If you walk outside at night and notice the red, green and white lights of a passing airplane, give thanks to Ohio’s own Warren Grimes. This inventor, innovator and entrepreneur is known as the “Father of Aircraft Lighting.”
Warren G. Grimes was born in Montgomery County, Ohio in 1898, not that far from where Orville and Wilbur Wright would perfect their aircraft. His father tragically died in 1907, and his mother was forced to place young Grimes in an orphanage in Tiffin, Ohio. There, Grimes began learning the skills of a machinist and soon gained the nickname “The Inventor.” At age 15, Grimes ran away from the orphanage to join his brother Frank in Detroit, finding work at the Ford Motor Company. Later, Grimes became a partner in an electrical business where he designed interior and exterior lighting fixtures. It was through one of his partners that he met his future wife, Charlotte Slocter. The two were married on Thanksgiving Day, 1920. The company caught the eye of Henry Ford, who approached Grimes in the mid-1920s to produce lights for the Ford Tri-Motor “Tin Goose.” Within 48 hours, Grimes had the first lamp ready to go – and Grimes’ aviation career was about to take off.
In 1930, the Grimes family, including their two daughters, Virginia and Beverly, left Detroit and moved to Urbana, Ohio. It was there that Grimes founded his own small lighting fixture plant, Grimes Manufacturing. He bought a farm north of Urbana, where he built both his home and an airstrip – still in use today as Grimes Field. To survive the Great Depression, Grimes built small go-carts powered by a Maytag washing machine engine to sell by mail order – impressing the Maytag Company enough that they ordered their own. Meanwhile, Grimes found the first customer for his wing-tip navigation lights in the Weaver Aircraft Company, or WACO, in nearby Troy, Ohio.
In 1933, Grimes received word that the Department of Commerce had given approval for his wing-tip lights, and thus was able to sell his products to other aviation manufacturers. His first patent, for an electric-powered retractable landing light, was granted in 1936, the same year his third daughter, Gloria, was born. During World War II, the vast majority of American aircraft were equipped with Grimes lighting, from small scout planes to the B-29 Superfortresses. In 1942, his company earned the coveted Army-Navy “E” Award for production excellence – an award given to less than 5 percent of plants involved in war work. By 1943, Grimes was making more than 120 different aircraft lighting components, including instrument and interior lights.
In the 1950s, the Grimes Flying Lab – a modified Beech 18 – was a common sight in the skies over Ohio as company engineers tested and developed products. Now restored and operated by the Grimes Flying Lab Foundation, the vintage craft vividly showcases the legacy of Warren Grimes – and is still sometimes used to demonstrate and test new lighting technologies. Recently, the Flying Lab helped demonstrate how LED lighting could be used on aircraft. By 1962, Grimes was making more than 3,000 items, and by the end of the decade there was virtually no airplane flying in the free world that did not contain Grimes lighting. Grimes electroluminescent control panels also rode into space, serving on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft.
Warren Grimes was also active in civic affairs, serving two terms as mayor of Urbana and chairman of the State Aviation Board. A committed philanthropist, Grimes supported countless churches, schools, scholarship funds and other community causes. He passed away on December 21, 1975, at age 77. Today, Grimes Manufacturing is a part of Honeywell Aerospace, and continues to provide topquality lighting and panel components to the aerospace industry. Products produced by the company founded by Grimes can be found in such aircraft as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the Boeing 777 airliner.
In recognition of his many contributions to air and spacecraft lighting and safety, the spotlight shines on Warren G. Grimes as he takes his well-deserved place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.