In the early years of aviation, many young mechanics and engineers built their own "flying machines" and formed their own companies. Only a handful of those companies exist today. The largest in the world was founded by William Boeing, whose quest for new ideas and determination to overcome difficulties lived on at his company long after he retired.
Boeing focused on building bigger and better planes, but he also promoted airplane travel for carrying goods and passengers around the world. In addition, his company's planes played a part in winning World War II (1939-45) for the United States and its allies; the Boeing Company continues to provide the U.S. military with a wide range of aircraft and other defense products.
"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, 'It can't be done.'"
William Edward Boeing was born on October 1, 1881, in Detroit, Michigan. His father Wilhelm, who made a fortune in the timber and iron industries, died when Boeing was eight. His mother Marie Ortman Boeing later remarried, but Boeing was not close to his stepfather. After attending private schools in Switzerland and the United States, Boeing entered Yale University. He studied engineering for three years, but left in 1902 without earning a degree.
Boeing moved to Washington state the next year, starting his own lumber business in Hoquiam. He later settled in Seattle. In 1910, Boeing went to Los Angeles, California, to see the first international airplane races held in the United States. He was eager to fly, but his first plane ride didn't come until 1915. By then, Boeing had met George Conrad Westervelt. The young Navy engineer had studied aeronautics—the science of flying—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He and Boeing shared a passion for planes. The two men took their first plane rides as passengers with a barnstormer, a daredevil pilot who toured the country appearing at air shows. After his first few rides, Boeing was convinced he and Westervelt could build a better plane.
Boeing bought a seaplane—instead of wheels, it had large floating platforms called pontoons. He learned to pilot the craft, taking lessons from Glenn Martin (1886-1955), one of the world's first aviators. Then Boeing and Westervelt used the seaplane as a model for their first plane, making such improvements as a larger engine and better pontoons. The men named it the Bluebill, but most people called it the B & W. Boeing flew the plane for the first time on June 15, 1916. A month later, he formed the Pacific Aero Products Company, which later became the Boeing Airplane Company
During World War I (1914-18), Boeing's company built planes for the U.S. Navy at a factory along the Duwamish River. Boeing kept an office in the center of Seattle, but he also spent time in Washington, D.C. Airplanes had proven their effectiveness in battle, and Boeing knew military contracts would play a role in his company's growth. After the war, however, the demand for planes fell. The Boeing Company would have collapsed, if it had not switched to making other products—and if Boeing had not kept paying his employees out of his personal wealth. The company built one new plane in 1919, the B-1, then received a government contract to build two hundred fighter planes. That job guaranteed Boeing's survival.
A True Pioneer
In 1920, former Boeing pilot Eddie Hubbard won one of the first contracts to deliver international airmail, flying the B-1. Boeing, however, remained focused on military aircraft for several more years, before finally building a plane designed to carry mail. This plane, the 40-A, also Boeing's first passenger plane, was followed by larger models.
Boeing took his company into a new area, forming his own airline. The company needed a larger airfield to accommodate its new planes. For a time, Boeing threatened to move his company if officials in King County, Washington, did not build a bigger field. The county responded quickly, opening Boeing Field (later called King County International Airport) in 1928.
By this time, Boeing was a wealthy man. He was also a husband, having married Bertha Porter Paschall in 1921. (The couple had one son, William Jr.) Boeing was now chairman of the board at his company, after turning over the presidency to his cousin Ed Gott, who was replaced in 1926 by Philip Johnson. Boeing was not active in every decision, but he had a larger vision for his company. In 1928, he began talks with Fred Rentschler, head of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, to merge their companies. Soon after the deal was announced, the new United Aircraft and Transport Corporation added several other airlines and aviation companies. Rentschler served as president of the new company, with Boeing as board chairman.
United Aircraft became the most successful aviation conglomerate, or association of companies, of the era. Its different companies built individual airplane parts, such as engines and propellers, and designed and built both military and commercial planes. Its airlines carried passengers and mail. During the years Boeing was part of this conglomerate, it introduced several new planes, including the Monomail and the 247, aircraft that influenced other commercial planes that followed them.
Problems in Washington
Starting in 1933, the U.S. Congress began investigating the airline industry, specifically the contracts awarded to carry airmail. Some small airlines claimed that they had unfairly lost contracts over the years. Boeing appeared before a congressional committee led by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama (1886-1971), a future Supreme Court Justice. Black and other senators blasted Boeing and United Aircraft for their business dealings. Boeing also faced questions about stock transactions he made at the time United Aircraft was formed. The hearings angered Boeing, who had always been a private person, since the stock deals were legal under the laws of the time.
Philip Condit: From Drafting Board to Board Room
When he took over as chief executive officer (CEO) of Boeing in 1996, Philip Condit was the latest in a series of Boeing engineers who worked their way to the top of the company. Condit, however, knew Boeing needed more than well-designed planes to keep its top spot in the aviation industry. To build profits, Condit introduced manufacturing processes developed in Japan and expanded Boeing's space, communications, and defense products.
Born in 1941 in California, Condit earned his pilot's license when he was eighteen. He studied engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and Princeton University before joining Boeing in 1965. He worked on every major commercial plane project and led the development of the 777. Along the way, he took time to earn a master's degree in business administration (MBA) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Within Boeing, he was known as a brilliant engineer with excellent communications skills. One Boeing executive told Financial World, "He makes you feel needed and appreciated. It's fun to work with him."
Fun has sometimes been in short supply during Condit's years in charge at Boeing. The company has endured two strikes and growing competition from Airbus, as well as its first loss in more than fifty years. The company also had trouble blending the management styles of McDonnell Douglas and Boeing executives after the two companies merged in 1997. Some Boeing employees felt Condit gave too much power to former McDonnell CEO Harry Stonecipher. Condit, however, told Fortune in 2000 "I don't believe I could have done it without someone like Harry."
Stonecipher retired from Boeing in 2002, and Condit, as chairman of the board, relied on both former McDonnell executives and Boeing people to run the company. He remained committed to cutting costs and moving Boeing into new areas. Condit told Crain's Chicago Business that for Boeing workers, the changes mean "the knowledge content of their jobs will go up … there'll be more people on the design and systems side of the business."
The airmail hearings created a scandal, and President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) took action in March 1934. He ended the mail contracts with United Aircraft and other private companies, putting the U.S. Army in charge of airmail delivery. When the new service experienced problems, Congress once again gave the contracts to private airlines, but said no company that carried mail could also build its own planes. United Aircraft was forced to break apart; the Boeing company was on its own again.
The congressional hearings and the end of United Aircraft disgusted Boeing. He decided to get out of the industry he helped found, selling most of his stock in Boeing. At age fifty-three, he had already stayed with the company three years longer than he had originally planned. Boeing turned the company over to Claire Egtvedt, an engineer who had been with Boeing almost since its founding.
A Secluded Retirement
For the rest of his life, Boeing spent most of his time fishing, cruising on his yacht, and raising horses and cattle. In 1946, he bought an estate, Aldarra Farms, in Fall City, Washington. He then donated his Seattle home to a children's hospital. Away from his company, he avoided the public eye even more than he had while at Boeing. Near the end of his life, however, he made one notable public appearance. In May 1954, he visited Boeing's Renton, Washington, plant to see the "roll out" of the 367-80—the plane later known as the 707. Several observers noted that Boeing had tears in his eyes as the jet rolled down the runway. A little more than two years later, Boeing suffered a fatal heart attack on his yacht as it sat in Washington's Puget Sound.
During Boeing's retirement, his successors carried on his tradition of taking risks and looking for the best technology possible. In his history of the Boeing company, Legend and Legacy, Robert Serling quotes from a plaque that hangs in the company's headquarters. The words were written by Boeing in 1929. He told his employees, "Our job is to keep everlastingly at research and experiment, to adapt our laboratories to production as soon as practical, and to let no improvement in flying and flying equipment pass us by."
In 1928, Boeing took his son William on his first plane ride, flying over the family's Seattle, Washington, home. Boeing Jr., however, never worked in aviation. Instead he took an active role at Seattle's Museum of Flight, the largest aviation museum on the West Coast.
For More Information
Mansfield, Harold. Vision: The Story of Boeing. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966.
Redding, Robert, and Bill Yenne. Boeing: Planemaker to the World. Greenwich, CT: Bison Books, 1983.
Serling, Robert J. Legend & Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Banks, Howard. "Slow Learner." Forbes (May 4, 1998): p. 54.
"It's a Desert Out There: Boeing's Bleak Outlook." The Economist (January 26, 2002).
Osterland, Andrew. "Philip M. Condit of the Boeing Company." Financial World (April 15, 1997): p. 66.
"Question and Answer: Philip Condit." Crain's Chicago Business (August 20, 2001): p. E33.
Richardson, Patricia. "An Inventive Innovator." Crain's Chicago Business (August 20, 2001): p. E54.
Useem, Jerry. "Boeing vs. Boeing." Fortune (October 2, 2000): p. 148.
The Boeing Company. [On-line] http://www.boeing.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
"Boeing, William." Leading American Businesses. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/trade-magazines/boeing-william
"Boeing, William." Leading American Businesses. . Retrieved March 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/trade-magazines/boeing-william