Skunkworks or skunkworks project is a slang phrase commonly used to describe a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project for the sake of innovation in technology.
A skunkworks project often operates independent of a company’s normal research and development operations and therefore is subject to limitations in resources. Projects often are undertaken in secret with the understanding that if the development is successful then the product will be designed later according to the usual process.
Famous Skunkworks Projects
Many companies use skunkworks projects to develop innovative, technological advancements. Famous examples of a skunkworks projects include the following:
- The Lockheed Advanced Development Projects: The first U.S. operational jet fighter plane (XP-80 Shooting Star).
- Texas Instruments: The Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) used to print airline tickets.
- IBM: Development of the IBM PC.
- Google: Google’s Gmail product.
- The first Apple Macintosh computer.
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works
While the phrase skunkworks and skunkworks project is commonly used slang in technology and other fields, SKUNK WORKS (R) is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin Corporation and is the designated alias of its Advanced Development Programs (ADP). Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is known world-wide for achieving breakthrough technological advancements in aircraft development.
Origins of the Phrase
The phrase originated in 1943, during World War II, when Lockheed Corporation built America’s first operational jet fighter. The phrase, used then as an informal nickname, comes from “Skonk Works” the Kickapoo Joy Juice bootleg brewing operation in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. The following description from lockheedmartin.com, explains the story behind the name:
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.” [Source]