Northrop began his career in 1916, when he joined the Loughead Brothers (later renamed Lockheed) as a draftsman engineer. While there, he designed the F-1, a large flying boat, and the S-1, a sports biplane; both airplanes featured an innovative monocoque (single-shell fuselage) design.
He joined Douglas Aircraft Company in 1923 and designed parts for the Douglas World Cruiser, the first airplane to fly around the world. Subsequently, he returned to Lockheed in 1927 as a chief engineer. At Lockheed he designed the Vega, a one-engine plane with an all-metal molded monocoque and internal-braced wing, setting the standard for clean design.
Northrop joined United Aircraft and Transportation, and while there he designed the Alpha, one of the first modern low-wing all metal airplanes for commercial application. In 1932, Northrop joined with Douglas Aircraft to form the Northrop Corporation. With Northrop's engineering direction, Northrop Corporation designed the Beta, Gamma and Delta commercial planes and later converted the Alpha into the Army A-17 and A-17A and Navy BT-1 bomber (the forerunner of the Douglas Dauntless).
Northrop's relationship with the military continued throughout World War II with the development of the N-3PB patrol bomber. Built for the Norwegian Air Force, it was one of the world's fastest military seaplanes. Northrop followed with the Black Widow P-61, the world's largest and most powerful fighter, designed specifically for night fighting. From the design of the Black Widow, Northrop developed the Northrop Reporter F-15, a photoreconnaissance plane capable of travelling more than 440 miles per hour, with a range of more than four thousand miles.
Also during the war, Northrop developed and patented a new process for building airplanes out of ultra light welded magnesium. This new process, called "Heliarc," led to the development of the XP-56 Black Bullet, XP-79 Flying Ram and the first American cruise missile, the JB-1 Power Bomb.
Northrop then continued his work on a flying wing bomber, finding success in 1940 with the flight of a one-third-scale model of the N-1M, the first true flying wing. This design led to a contract from the Air Force in 1941 for the development of the XB-35 flying-wing bomber and subsequent designs, the YB-35, YB-49 and YRB-49. The contract was later cancelled in 1949 and all but one of the airplanes was destroyed. A flying wing bomber would not find production for another forty years, with the deployment of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber in 1993. The flying wing continues to be known for its high aerodynamic efficiency and for the stealth it provides in eluding the enemy.
Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1895, John Northrop and his parents, Charles and Helen, moved several times during his early childhood, finally settling in California in 1904. Northrop graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1913. Rather than pursuing an academic career, he worked as an architectural draftsman, garage mechanic and building tradesman.
In 1942, Northrop founded the Northrop Institute of Technology in Los Angeles (later Northrop University), to provide students interested in technology with the opportunity to advance into the industry. Northrop has also been the recipient of several awards and honors, including the St. Louis Medal from ASME in 1947, a Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1974 and induction into both the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1972 and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.