The Beginnings - Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

1 The Beginnings


The first B & W airplanes were built in a boathouse on Lake Union in Seattle.

At the turn of the 20th century, the world seemed like a much smaller place. Roads were unpaved and rutted, and most people got from here to there in a horse and buggy—“from here to there” being a distance of no more than 50 miles. For longer distances, travelers had the costly options of journeying by rail or ship. A trip across the United States took at least a week. A transatlantic journey from New York to Southampton, England, required a minimum of five days, and therefore such trips were not common.

Then, two brothers who operated a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, demonstrated the feasibility of machine-powered human flight. The physical boundaries that held humans on the ground were conquered at last. Although the link between flight and travel was not immediate, the brothers’ achievement would make long-distance travel accessible to the public in only a few years.

So extraordinary was the first sustained heavier- than-air human flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903, that French inventor and engineer Louis Bleriot wrote, “The most beautiful dream that has haunted the heart of man since Icarus is today reality.” No one alive at the time would have disagreed.

Certainly not Bill Boeing. For this 23-year-old who had just left Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University, science and adventure were inextricably linked. Boeing had studied engineering at Yale and had a bent for “all things mechanical,” an early biographer noted. He enjoyed testing his physical skills and stamina, racing boats and cars. His adventurous interests led him to Grays Harbor, Washington, where he quickly learned the logging business on some timberland owned by his family.

Year by year, Boeing added to these holdings and traded them, gradually establishing himself in the Pacific Northwest as a sharp businessman, a “man on the go,” in the parlance of the day. In 1908 he moved his operations to Seattle, where he founded the Greenwood Timber Company, joining a class of other timber barons including Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Jack Eddy. Still, something was missing, an undefined need to engage in a business that was more exciting than buying timberlands and cutting down spruce.

Perhaps this explains Boeing’s business diversifications. His first was the acquisition in 1910 of the Heath Shipyard on the Duwamish River, where he had previously had a yacht called the Taconite built. Piloting the yacht appealed to his sense of adventure. So did the prospect of flying in an airplane, a longing he had harbored since the Wright brothers accomplished their historic feat a few years before.

In 1910, he traveled with friends to Los Angeles for the first International Air Meet. Transfixed by the aerial stunts and apparently unfazed by the danger, he approached French pilot Louis Paulhan and asked for a trip in his plane. Boeing didn’t get a ride, but he was determined to get one the next time.

The opportunity came at a 1914 Fourth of July flying exhibition in Seattle. Lining up for a flight on aviator Terah Maroney’s plane were Boeing and Navy Lieutenant George Conrad Westervelt, a close friend who had studied aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and shared his interest in aviation. Boeing went first, perching beside Maroney on the front edge of the biplane’s lower muslin-covered wing. He later remarked that he could see the lake “tilting up beside him like a flat picture plate” as the plane banked away from Seattle’s Lake Union.


Timberman Bill Boeing rides a steamer ship into Grays Harbor, Washington, in 1903, the same year the Wright brothers achieved flight.


A B & W is shown in flight in a painting by Boeing artist Fred Takasumi.

The aircraft ascended farther into the sky, and Boeing witnessed the grand scenery of Puget Sound and “tiny people” below, his friend Westervelt among them. The ride was soon over, and the plane’s pontoons skidded across the lake’s surface. Afterward, Boeing turned to Westervelt and said, “There isn’t much to that machine of Maroney’s. I think we could build a better one.” Westervelt agreed.

Boeing decided to learn how to pilot a plane himself and signed up for flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Flying School in Los Angeles. Upon receiving his license, he purchased a Martin TA floatplane in which to practice flying. It arrived in pieces in crates, and he had it assembled in his boathouse on the shores of Lake Union. But he was no more impressed with the Martin TA than with Maroney’s biplane.

Armed with Westervelt’s knowledge of aerodynamics and Boeing’s mechanical skills, the two men tackled the task of making a better plane. They replaced the single pontoon on the Martin TA with two pontoons affixed to two outriggers—an innovation that enhanced stability during takeoff and landing. Westervelt arranged for his alma mater to review the design and test a model of the twin-float seaplane in MIT’s brand-new four-foot-wide wind tunnel on Vassar Street in Cambridge. It passed with flying colors.

From these humble beginnings—two fellows in a small boathouse making a better airplane—sprang the company that would make passenger air travel routine and voyages to the moon attainable.

The partners called their plane the B & W for their respective initials. The first model was christened the Bluebill. Soon, the second (and final) B & W, the Mallard, was in production. Boeing recruited about a dozen workers for the new aircraft company, including pilots, carpenters, boat builders, and seamstresses to sew together the muslin wing coverings. They manufactured the aircraft one piece at a time at the shipyard on the Duwamish River and trucked the pieces to Boeing’s boathouse for assembly.

On June 29, 1916, the Bluebill made its maiden flight, without Westervelt there to watch it. The country was on the brink of war, and the U.S. Navy had dispatched him to the East Coast to prepare for maneuvers. At the controls of the plane was Bill Boeing—the pilot was late, and Boeing had a yearning to fly it anyway. He taxied the plane along the waters of Lake Union, gunned the engine, and lifted off for a brief quarter-mile trip. Years later, Boeing magazine would describe the Bluebill on its first flight: “its wings straight and pert, spruce struts gleaming with new varnish.”

Upon landing, Boeing remarked, “The construction was better all around [than the Martin TA].” As he had predicted, they had made a better plane.

With Westervelt gone, Boeing incorporated Pacific Aero Products Co. on his own on July 15, 1916. The following year, he changed the name of the aircraft manufacturing company to Boeing Airplane Co. He was convinced that constant innovation and technological advancements were the keys to making the company a success, and he was willing to spend what it took to achieve it.

To attain his objectives, Boeing hired one of the few aeronautical engineers in the country, Wong Tsoo, a Chinese national studying in the United States. Other engineers, including Clairmont “Claire” Egtvedt and Philip G. Johnson, both recent graduates from the University of Washington, also joined the company. By the end of its first year of existence, Boeing Airplane Co. had almost 30 employees.


This photograph of a B & W in the air gives a clear view of the seaplane’s pontoons.


A Boeing Model C awaits flight in Boeing’s Lake Union boathouse in Seattle. The Navy would order 50 of the training planes as the United States entered World War I.

From the beginning, Boeing had a reputation as an exacting perfectionist. He was well aware of the seriousness of his new enterprise—people’s lives were at stake. He once saw a set of improperly sawed spruce ribs in the shipyard that served as the company’s manufacturing plant and tossed them to the floor and broke them. Another time, he spied a frayed aileron cable and said, “I, for one, will close up shop rather than send out work of this kind.” Bill Boeing’s regard for meticulousness is woven into the history of the company that bears his name and characterizes the enterprise to this day.

Despite the company’s early commitment to quality and innovation, orders were slow in coming. To keep the business going, Boeing dug into his own wallet to guarantee a loan covering his payroll—about $700 a week, a huge sum at the time.

There was a break in the financial strains on the company when Westervelt wrote Boeing that the Navy desperately needed training planes to create a corps of pilots. The war in Europe had escalated, and the United States was preparing for probable involvement. Boeing immediately charged Wong to assist the company’s lead engineer, James Foley, with designing a new aircraft to address the Navy’s need. The result, the Model C seaplane, incorporated several mold-breaking innovations. The wings tilted upward two degrees, and the upper wing sat forward of the lower wing rather than being stacked. Wong tested a model of the plane in a wind tunnel that had just been built at the University of Washington; Boeing had funded its construction in the hope that the school would eventually provide well-trained aeronautical engineers for the growing company. The aircraft performed beyond expectations.

Now, he had to get the plane to the Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, for evaluation before the deadline. Flying the plane from Seattle would take too long, so Boeing had two Model C planes dismantled and shipped by rail to Pensacola, accompanied by the Boeing factory superintendent, Claude Berlin, and a test pilot, Herb Munter. In Florida, Berlin reassembled one plane and Munter flew it for Navy officials, who were impressed and ordered 50 Model Cs. It was Boeing’s first production order and a sizable one at that—a total of 56 Model C trainers ultimately were built.

The Navy also ordered 50 single-engine HS-2L patrol seaplanes, which were designed by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. and manufactured by Boeing and three other aircraft makers—a partnership among competing manufacturers that foreshadowed future collaborations during times of war and in the race to space.

To manufacture the two orders for Navy seaplanes, the workforce at Boeing had ballooned to 337 employees by 1918. But when the war ended that November, the Navy cut its order for HS-2Ls in half. New passenger airplanes weren’t needed either—the surplus biplanes left over from the war were more than adequate. For the first time, Bill Boeing felt the business repercussions of the boom-and-bust cycle that would typify the industry.

“The war ended, and so did business,” Boeing’s son, Bill Boeing Jr., later said. “Thankfully, my father still had a successful logging operation [to keep] all those good people in the shop.”

Taking advantage of his timber holdings, Boeing had his idled workers build commercial and residential furniture and flat-bottomed speedboats called Sea Sleds—the “automobiles of the sea,” according to the Seattle Daily Times. Although these were not the kinds of ventures he had in mind for the Boeing Airplane Co., he remained patient that the market would revive. As time wore on, the company struggled to survive.

In 1919, Boeing signed a modest contract with the U.S. Army to modernize 298 British-built de Havilland DH-4 fighter planes. Unable to get a line of credit from the banks, Boeing had to again dig into his wallet to pay for their manufacture. Layoffs soon became unavoidable, and the workforce dwindled to a fifth of its wartime size. Without another order for aircraft soon, Boeing confided to his vice president and general manager, Edgar N. Gott, he’d have to close up shop.

But as the new decade dawned, the company’s prospects brightened. Commercial orders picked up, and Boeing was back making its own aircraft. The first order was for a new plane, the BB-L6, wanted by a local pilot to transport passengers on aerial tours—two at a time, sitting in front of him in the cockpit. The BB-L6 marked a new direction for the company: it was Boeing’s first aircraft specifically designed to carry passengers.

The company also received an order for 200 open-cockpit biplanes from the fledgling U.S. Army Air Service (forerunner of the U.S. Air Force). The MB-3A fighter plane was designed by Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation, which manufactured the first 50 MB-3s. But when the Air Service put out a request for additional planes, Boeing’s ready access to spruce to build the planes enabled him to undercut Thomas-Morse’s bid and win the job. Boeing also improved on the design, putting engine radiators on the sides of the cockpit instead of on top of the upper wings. The government’s order totaled $1.8 million—the company’s largest since the end of the war.

The MB-3A put Boeing back into fighting condition, but it still had difficulty selling passenger aircraft, given the market glut. Despite Boeing’s attempts to sell seaplanes to local sportsmen, the military—war or no war—was by far its largest customer.

Technological advances continued apace. When the company manufactured 71 NB trainer models for the U.S. Navy, engineers incorporated such progressive features as an air-cooled engine and N-shaped wing struts. Boeing stuck to his pledge to make airplanes of increasing sophistication, continuing to learn from the work of other manufacturers. For example, engineers had studied the construction of the advanced German World War I fighter plane, the Fokker D. VII. They were determined to improve upon the plane, and their revolutionary design, the prototype XPW-9, replaced the Fokker’s conventional wood-and-wire fuselage with one welded from steel and braced with piano wire. Instead of the Fokker’s wooden wing struts, the XPW-9’s wing struts were crafted from steel tubes.

The plane’s unique design and top speed of 159 miles per hour brought brisk orders from both the Army and the Navy. Once the plane was out of the experimental stage (hence the “X” in its title), Boeing called it the Model 15, while the Army designated it the PW-9 and the Navy labeled it the FB-1. The planes marked Boeing’s first venture manufacturing military fighters of its own design. Between 1923 and 1928, the company built 157 Model 15s in different versions, applying the knowledge it had gleaned in its early years building aircraft and making aircraft systems for competing manufacturers. Later variations included a version made specifically for Navy aircraft carriers with a tailhook that enabled the plane to make controlled landings on a ship—an innovation still used on aircraft carriers today.

The company’s growing reputation for developing innovative aircraft soon became its brand identity. As the Seattle Times stated in 1920, Boeing planes were “in many respects superior to machines produced by the greatest aircraft factories of the United States.”

By the 1920s, several competitors had appeared on the scene and were making planes of equal sophistication. Donald Wills Douglas was among these aviation pioneers. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Douglas reportedly had witnessed early flights by the Wright brothers as a teenager that left an indelible mark. At the United States Naval Academy, where he was enrolled as a cadet, he awed (and perhaps annoyed) his dormitory roommates by making model airplanes with “engines” propelled by rubber bands. Like George Conrad Westervelt, he later studied aeronautical engineering at MIT, and upon graduation he joined several nascent manufacturing entities including Connecticut Aircraft Company and the Glenn Martin Company. In July 1921, he incorporated The Douglas Co.

No sooner had the new venture launched than Douglas landed his first Navy contract to build torpedo bombers, starting with the DT-1. By 1922, the company had delivered six of the aircraft, giving Douglas the financial confidence to lease an abandoned movie studio on Wilshire Boulevard near Santa Monica, California, as a factory. There, the company manufactured the Douglas World Cruiser, a modified version of the DT-2 torpedo bomber, for the sole purpose of doing something no one else had ever done before: circumnavigate the globe by air. The project was financed by the U.S. Army Air Service. Douglas was establishing himself as a tough competitor for the long run.


Douglas Aircraft Company built five World Cruisers with the goal of being the first to circumnavigate the globe. Two of the World Cruisers achieved their goal, giving the company its motto, “First Around the World.” At right, the company founder, Donald Douglas, stands with a Douglas DT bomber.

Four Douglas World Cruisers set off on April 6, 1924, to accomplish what Ferdinand Magellan had achieved four centuries earlier by ship. Douglas had stashed aircraft parts across the globe in case the planes needed repairs en route. Boeing even assisted in the endeavor, its employees in Seattle exchanging the planes’ wheels for pontoons for the overwater portion of the flight to Asia. Two of the World Cruisers ultimately made it around the world, logging 27,553 miles in six months and six days (with an actual flying time of 371 hours). The exploit put the company on the map and gave it its motto, “First Around the World.”

The following year, James H. “Dutch” Kindelberger joined Douglas Co. as chief engineer. In subsequent years he would lead the development of the famous DC-1 and DC-2 commercial transport aircraft, giving the Douglas Co. a bulwark in the battle for future airline business. Douglas would prove to be one of Boeing’s fiercest competitors—and, on occasion, most ardent collaborators.

During this period, Bill Boeing continued to concentrate on making military aircraft rather than passenger planes. A new enterprise soon altered his plans. In 1918, the U.S. Post Office made history by creating the first regularly scheduled airmail service in the United States with a route between Washington, DC, and New York, via an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. The experiment proved the viability of transporting mail by air, and the government inaugurated regular airmail service on May 15, 1919. Six years later, the signing of the U.S. Air Mail Act authorized the U.S. Post Office to award government mail contracts on designated routes to private carriers via a bidding process. Boeing wanted in.

He already had some experience flying the mail. In 1919, he and company pilot Eddie Hubbard flew a Model C-700 biplane carrying 60 letters from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle, marking the first international airmail flight. Back then, Boeing believed the cost of manufacturing planes just to fly the mail was prohibitive. But once airmail service was commercialized, he changed his mind. And he had an idea how to generate an additional source of revenue on the airmail planes: flying passengers.

“A lot of people didn’t think it was possible to fly both mail and passengers together,” said Bill Boeing Jr. “Boeing airmail was profitable only for one reason—that extra passenger revenue.”

A few years later, the company placed its bid for an airmail contract with its new Model 40A plane. It was powered by an air-cooled, 420-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine, which was much lighter than other engines. The plane’s low weight permitted the transport of twice the payload, allowing Boeing to tender a lower bid than his competitors.

The company was awarded the contract to deliver airmail between San Francisco and Chicago, and the Model 40A went into service in 1927, two years after its maiden flight. The deal with the government required the manufacture of 26 airplanes in less than a year—a brisk rate of production. To guarantee it, Boeing had to underwrite a $500,000 bond with his own money.


On March 1, 1919, Bill Boeing (standing on the right) and Eddie Hubbard (on the left) flew the first international airmail flight between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.


Eight years later, the Model 40A became the first Boeing commercial airplane to go into full production.


Model 40As are shown being put together in Boeing’s assembly building on the Duwamish River near Seattle. The small shipyard would witness many advances in early aviation.

For the first time, Boeing Airplane Co. would make and fly its own planes, piloted by a hired crew. Not only did the Model 40 represent Boeing’s first production commercial airplane, it was the beginning of an actual airline.

Boeing Air Transport (BAT), led by Phil Johnson, was formed to run the new airline. At the inauguration of the first BAT airmail flight on July 1, 1927, Bertha Boeing, Bill’s wife, performed the traditional champagne bottle—smashing ceremony using orange juice—flavored soda water; champagne was not allowed because Prohibition was in effect. She commented that it “made a satisfactory fizz,” but rumors persisted that she had secretly broken the rules and hoisted a bottle of bubbly.

Jane Eads, a reporter for the Chicago Herald Examiner, was the first BAT passenger. Elegantly attired in high heels, a knee-length business suit, and a feather boa, she made the 22.5-hour trip between San Francisco and Chicago in a cabin not much bigger than a closet. Bill Boeing had achieved his vision to expand the company’s business beyond government contracts, and BAT was the company’s first break into commercial aviation. By the end of the year, BAT had transported 1,863 passengers along with 67 tons of mail and other freight. Boeing earned more money than anticipated, and BAT was profitable from its first day of operations.

How important was airmail to the future of the American commercial aviation business? In a word, vital. “Airmail got commercial flying under way, and it was Boeing that developed the airplane and the system that made flying the mail much cheaper than it had been before,” said Brien Wygle, Boeing’s former chief test pilot.

In 1928, Boeing Airplane & Transport Company was created as a holding company for both parts of the business—manufacturing and transport. The same year, the holding company purchased control of rival Pacific Air Transport, giving it a virtual lock on all airmail delivered up and down the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle. Shortly thereafter, Boeing and Fred Rentschler, president of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, a maker of aircraft engines, entered into a stock arrangement to form a new holding company named United Aircraft and Transport Corporation.

With his near-monopoly on West Coast airmail, Bill Boeing now turned his attention to building a plane specifically for passengers: the Model 80 12-passenger biplane. Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927 had made airplanes seem less dangerous and farfetched as a means of routine transportation. If a plane could travel that far over an ocean with no problems, certainly one could safely transport people from one city to another. Besides, air travel was much faster than other modes of travel, albeit more expensive. The other disadvantages were the rattling, the noise, and the accommodations.

Boeing sought to address these drawbacks in its next plane: the three-engine part-wood, part-metal Model 80. The aircraft was made with passenger comfort in mind and featured leather- upholstered seats and a heated cabin with hot and cold running water. Registered nurses—the world’s first female flight attendants—were on board to serve and reassure apprehensive travelers. To stifle the sound of the engines, earplugs were provided to passengers. The plane made its maiden voyage on July 27, 1928, and was quickly put into scheduled service. Sixteen Model 80s were ultimately built, including an upgraded 18-passenger Model 80A in 1930.

The aviation industry was clearly in a growth cycle. From its unassuming beginnings 14 years earlier in a small shipyard building that employees nicknamed the Red Barn, Boeing Airplane Co. had grown to encompass an expanded plant complex comprising 11 buildings equipped with state-of-the-art machinery. With 800 employees on the payroll in 1928, the company was one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world.

Bill Boeing at last had found the elusive purpose of his life’s work: making increasingly better aircraft. With his company secure, he no longer had to dig into his own wallet to finance the business. The industry’s potential seemed as endless as the skies.


The Model 80 biplane (far right) brought passenger air travel into vogue. Registered nurses (right) served as flight attendants and also assisted airsick and nervous passengers.


Over the course of 100 years, Boeing has gone from handcrafting small canvas-and-wooden wings for biplanes to producing the high-tech carbon-fiber composite wings of the 787 Dreamliner.