Boeing, a wealthy Seattle timber man and aviation enthusiast, learned to fly from Glenn L. Martin and in 1915, purchased one of the first Martin seaplanes. When an accident damaged the plane, Boeing decided to repair it himself. He soon became convinced that a whole new plane could be made. He received enthusiastic encouragement from a young construction engineer at the nearby Bremerton Navy Yard and Pacific Aero Products Co. was born.
- 1916, Established the Pacific Airplane Company, which became the Boeing Airplane Company a year later and built its first two planes, both float biplanes.
- 1926 established the Boeing Air Transport service for mail and passenger service.
- Helped create the United Aircraft and Transport Company (known as “United” today) and served as chairman.
- Awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Award in 1934.
America’s Gilded Age was a time of prosperity as well as poverty; of great industrial growth and the sweatshops and other bad conditions that went along with this propserity. “Robber barons,” captains of industry, and wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts and Carnegies ruled America, while the poor looked to political machines such as Tammany Hall for support, as they struggled to make ends meet. France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau once remarked that America had gone from barbarism to decadence without ever achieving any civilization in between. The emergence of modern America created a state of great growth and advancement, and any man who dreamed could make a fortune.
One man, William Boeing, achieved success simply by possessing a passion for adventure, surrounding himself with knowledgeable friends, and taking chances at the right moments.
William Boeing was born October 1st, 1881 in Detroit, Michigan. His father, Wilhelm Boeing, migrated to America with a vision of wealth and freedom. The elder Boeing made his fortune as a timber baron, purchasing an immense region of the Mesabi Mountain Range rich in iron and pine. He was a strict father and only wanted the best for his son providing William with the finest education available in both America and Switzerland. Unfortunately, the elder Boeing died when William was only eight years old, but not before he served as a catalyst for his son’s future successes.
Boeing entered Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School with the class of 1904, but he would leave school with only a year left. Coincidentally, this was the same year the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. That same year Boeing moved to Gray’s Harbor, Washington. Searching for adventure, wealth, and himself, much as his father had done, Boeing successfully established his own timber business and made a fortune trading forest land. After only seven years, Boeing was ready for a new adventure and moved to Seattle.
Boeing, the man of fortune, surrounded himself with other men of wealth and prosperity who also maintained a thirst for adventure. He once remarked, “My firm conviction from the start has been that science and hard work can lick what appear to be insurmountable difficulties. I’ve tried to make the men around me feel, as I do, that we are embarked as pioneers upon a new science and industry in which our problems are so new and unusual that it behooves no one to dismiss any novel idea with the statement that it can’t be done.” Conrad Westervalt, an Annapolis engineering graduate and strong proponent of naval aviation, met and befriended Boeing through elite social clubs. Both bachelors at the time, they enjoyed sailing and boating in the Puget Sound. The pair’s conversation most often turned to technological advancements of not only traditional boats, but also boats with wings. Boeing was dissatisfied with the boats on the market, so the wealthy young man took action. He bought the Heath Shipyard and started a company building boats of his own design and specifications.
It would not be long, though, before Boeing became interested in the newest invention, the airplane. While attending the first American Air Meet in Los Angeles, Boeing asked nearly every aviator for a ride, but no one agreed except Louis Paulhan. For three days Boeing waited, but on the fourth day he discovered that Paulhan had already left the meet. Possibly one of the biggest missed opportunities in Paulhan’s life was the ride he never gave Boeing. After the meet, Paulhan represented himself in a lawsuit the Wright Brothers filed against him alleging he infringed on their aileron patent. Paulhan would eventually lose and he returned to France where he attempted to build airplanes without ailerons.
Finally, on July 4th, 1914, Boeing’s wait was over when a friend offered him a ride in his Curtiss hydroplane. The ride was disappointing for Boeing. The plane was extremely uncomfortable, loud, and unstable. After talking with Conrad Westervelt, the two men decided that they could build a better plane.
Before Boeing and Westervelt could build their own plane, someone had to learn to fly. Taking lessons from NAHF enshrinee Glenn Martin, Boeing hastily learned the basics of flight and immediately after soloing, he bought a plane and went back to Seattle.
The plane, a Martin designed seaplane, the most technologically advanced plane of its time, succumbed to erratic flying shortly after it arrived in Seattle. Being, who narrowly escaped injury, wrecked the plane. Replacement parts were ordered from Martin, but without modern delivery services, the parts would take weeks to arrive. Knowing they could build a better airplane, and deciding there was no time to wait for parts, Boeing and Westervelt dismantled the plane and began to study its design and construction.
Using the design structure of the Martin Plane, Boeing’s version featured greater wingspan and lighter construction, but most importantly new pontoons, which they blamed for causing the accident. The shipyard in Seattle’s harbor was converted to an makeshift aircraft plant employing skilled workers from his boating facility to construct an airplane. Boeing himself flew the Mallard, the first of two B&W planes, on its inaugural flight in June 15th, 1916.
Throughout his life, Boeing possessed the keen sense and ability to capitalize on good prospects. Realizing the importance of the airplane for both civilian transportation and military combat, Boeing formed the Pacific Aero Products Company to “act as a common carrier of passengers and freight by aerial navigation.” The company, renamed the Boeing Airplane Company shortly thereafter, received its financing largely from a loan from a bank of which Boeing owned about 75%. Boeing also used his personal account as collateral.
With the possibility of World War I looming overhead, Boeing advocated military aviation and Westervalt, now in the procurement office of the Navy, urged Boeing to apply for government contracts that supplied airplanes to the Navy. Winning the contract was a simple task for Boeing, but he missed an integral piece of airplane manufacturing – an engineering department. His Chief Engineer, T. Wong, had recently resigned and Westervelt was serving with the Navy in Washington D.C. Resourcefully, Boeing solved the problem by offering the University of Washington a wind tunnel in exchange for establishing an aeronautical engineering course and filtering the best graduates to Boeing.
The war soon ended, Boeing’s government contracts were cancelled and the airplane industry as a whole came to a halt. Instead of folding up his business, Boeing adapted to the situation and returned to building boats. Boats, however, could not sustain his business, so Boeing began manufacturing bedroom furniture, armchairs and even examined the possibility of manufacturing ouija boards. Boeing went so far as to pay his employees out of his own pocket or in stocks. In fact, there is a tale of a janitor who collected stocks from employees who considered them useless; eventually the stocks made him a fortune.
The Boeing Airplane Company’s lean years came to an end when Boeing was approached by Eddie Hubbard. The brilliant and somewhat arrogant Hubbard had recently received a discharge from the Army for jeopardizing equipment. Developing a theory on how to survive a deadly spin, Hubbard tested this theory on a government plane. The theory proved to be correct, but Army officials didn’t appreciate testing it on their planes.
Airmail was in is initial stages when Hubbard convinced Boeing of the futility of obtaining a government contract to fly mail internationally, from Seattle to British Columbia. The government flew airmail was flown, but Hubbard realized the limitations of the government and proposed the possibility of establishing an international airmail route.
The government agreed to a trial period and the two men flew the first mail over international lines on March 3rd, 1919, becoming the first venture into the Boeing commercial business. Boeing’s advisors convinced him, however, to give up the contract after the trial period so that the company could focus its efforts on the construction of airplanes, and he in turn, persuaded Hubbard to bid on the contract.
After the Kelly Bill passed opening airmail contracts to the public in 1925, Hubbard again, in 1927, convinced Boeing to bid on the San Francisco to Chicago route. The bid Boeing placed for the contract was too low according to the government, which demanded a guarantee that the planes would deliver mail for a specific period of time, even if they were losing money. Anticipating the contract’s success, Boeing even posted a bond of $500,000 of his own money for the contract.
For this venture, Boeing chartered a new company, The Boeing Transport Company (BAT), which in turn hired the Boeing Airplane Company to build their planes. Resurrecting the Boeing airplane B-1 with few modifications and improvements such as, a metal body construction and more powerful Wasp engine, the company embarked on prosperous future of transportation which still exists today. This first Boeing mass produced commercial aircraft depended on the new Wasp engine designed by NAHF enshrinee Frederick Rentschler. Boeing went so far as to convince the government to hold out on 24 engines so that Boeing could receive his first.
This time, however, the BAT would not only be flying mail, they expanded to include passengers. Counting on his new planes with comfortable seating, the BAT flew their first passenger, Miss Jane Eads, a reporter, on July 1st, 1927. Sharply dressed in high heels and a feather boa, Miss Eads stole the show. Within the first year, BAT transported 1,300 tons of mail and 6,000 passengers.
By February 1929, the BAT became the largest aviation company. Boeing shrewdly purchased airmail routes and small aircraft companies, often purchasing failing companies with the assurance that the employees would maintain their jobs.
William Boeing retired in 1934 after he was ordered to break up his company conglomerate. He walked away from a company he built from the ground up and into which he had poured so much of his money and resources to keep it afloat after World War I. In the end, the public highly scrutinized Boeing’s acquisitions and the money which flowed from his acute business sense.
Just before his retirement, Boeing received the coveted Daniel Guggenheim Medal for “his vision and willingness to spend his money that has resulted in the formation of one of the best manufacturing and transport organizations in the world.” Accepting the award he said, “as the past years devoted to aircraft activities have been filled with real romance, the many forward projects not in the making will continue to keep me on the sidelines as a keen and interested observer.”
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