Skunk Works is an official pseudonym for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. Skunk Works is responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which will be used in the air forces of several countries.
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.
The original Lockheed facility, during the development of the P-80 Shooting Star, was located adjacent to a malodorous plastics factory. According to Ben Rich’s 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, Irv Culver, 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 Culver’s desk. Culver answered the phone in his trademark fashion of the time, by picking up the phone and stating “Skonk Works, inside man Culver”. “What?” replied the voice at the other end. “Skonk Works”, Culver repeated. The name stuck. Culver later said at an interview conducted in 1993 that “when Kelly Johnson heard about the incident, he promptly fired me. It didn’t really matter, since he was firing me about twice a day anyways.”
At the request of the comic strip copyright holders, Lockheed changed the name of the advanced development company to “Skunk Works” in the 1960s. The name “Skunk Works” and the skunk design are now registered trademarks of the Lockheed Martin Corporation. The company also holds several registrations of it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They have filed several challenges against registrants of domain names containing variations on the term under anti-cybersquatting policies, and have lost a case under the .uk domain name dispute resolution service against a company selling cannabis seeds and paraphernalia, which used the word “skunkworks” in its domain name (referring to “Skunk”, a variety of the cannabis plant). Lockheed Martin claimed the company registered the domain in order to disrupt its business and that consumer confusion might result. The respondent company argued that Lockheed “used its size, resources and financial position to employ ‘bullyboy’ tactics against . . . a very small company.”
Australian company The Novita Group Pty Ltd owns the trademark “Skunkworks” in that country. After years of litigation the Australian government department IP Australia confirmed the trademark and awarded it to Novita against Lockheed Martin’s objections.