How William E. Boeing Built a Billion-Dollar Business | History Hit

How William E. Boeing Built a Billion-Dollar Business

Chris Smith

08 Mar 2022
William Boeing is photographed for a newspaper report on 25 September 1929.
Image Credit: Los Angeles Times via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

William E. Boeing was an American entrepreneur and pioneer in the aviation industry. His life is a tale of how a young man’s fascination with aircraft ultimately grew into Boeing, the world’s biggest aerospace company.

Not quite a classic example of the idealised American dream – his father a more recognisable depiction of that – Boeing was a visionary who was able to transform a growing interest in aviation into a developmental industry.

Boeing’s success is owed greatly to his ability to understand, adapt and develop. So cutting edge was the nature of Boeing’s work, he himself is unlikely to have fully visualised the company’s trajectory.

Here’s the story of William E. Boeing and the creation of the pioneering Boeing company.

Boeing’s father was also a successful entrepreneur

Having been cut off by his father after immigrating to America, Wilhelm Böing, William’s father, forged his own way as a manual labourer before joining forces with Karl Ortmann whose daughter, Marie, he’d later marry.

After eventually going it alone, Wilhelm found his fortune amongst Minnesotan iron and timber before diversifying into finance and manufacturing. Wilhelm provided both the inspiration and the financial support for his son’s business ventures.

Boeing dropped out of Yale

Wilhelm died when William was just 8. After William’s mother Marie remarried, he was sent overseas to study in Vezey, Switzerland. He returned to continue his education at a Boston prep school before enrolling at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in Connecticut to study engineering.

In 1903, with a year remaining, Boeing dropped out and decided to turn inherited land in Gray’s Harbor, Washington into a timber yard. That December, the Wright Brothers would successfully pilot the first flight.

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Boeing followed in his father’s footsteps

Like his father’s firm, Boeing’s timber company served the rising demands of the Industrial Revolution. Success enabled him to expand, first into Alaska, then Seattle where, in 1908, he set up the Greenwood Timber Company.

Two years later, his mother Marie’s death saw him inherit $1m, equivalent to $33m today. This funded diversification into boat building which followed the purchase of Heath Shipyard on the Duwamish River, Seattle.

Boeing’s initial experiences of flying frustrated him

In 1909, Boeing attended the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Washington and for the first time encountered aircraft, a popular hobby in post-Wright Brothers America. One year later, at the Dominguez Flying Meet in California, Boeing asked every pilot to take him for a flight with all but one declining. Boeing waited for three days before learning Louis Paulhan had already left.

When Boeing was eventually taken for a flight in a Curtiss hydroplane by a friend, he was disappointed, finding the plane uncomfortable and unstable. He began to learn about aircraft mechanics with an aim to eventually improve their design.

A portrait of William Boeing currently on display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Image Credit: SDASM Archives via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A damaged plane led Boeing to aircraft manufacturing

Learning to fly was the logical next step so Boeing began lessons in 1915 at the Glenn L. Martin Flying School in Los Angeles. He bought one of Martin’s planes which crashed soon after. On learning repairs could take weeks, Boeing told friend and US Navy Commander, George Westervelt: “We could build a better plane ourselves and build it better”. Westervelt agreed.

In 1916, together they founded Pacific Aero Products. The company’s first attempt, affectionately called Bluebill, professionally referred to as the B&W Seaplane and later the Model C, was a huge success.

Westervelt’s military insight offered Boeing an opportunity

Westervelt left the company when transferred east by the Navy. Lacking engineering talent, Boeing convinced the University of Washington to begin an aeronautical engineering course in exchange for building a wind tunnel. Following the transformation of Heath Shipyard into a factory, Westervelt urged Boeing to apply for government contracts, anticipating US involvement in World War One.

A successful Model C demonstration in Florida resulted in an order of 50 from the US Navy. In 1916, Pacific Aero Products was renamed Boeing Air Company.

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Boeing established the first international airmail route

When the war ended, the aviation sector suffered and became flooded with cheap military aircraft. Boeing manufactured furniture while he explored commercial aviation opportunities. In 1919, he trialled the first international airmail route between Seattle and Vancouver with ex-army pilot Eddie Hubbard.

Six years on, new legislation opened all airmail routes to public bidding. Boeing won the San Francisco and Chicago route. The venture saw Boeing establish the airline Boeing Air Transport which transported an estimated 1300 tonnes of mail and 6000 people in its first year.

Boeing’s rapid expansion prompted a legislative backlash

In 1921, Boeing’s operation was turning a profit. A decade on, it was doing so unfairly, according to the government. In 1929, Boeing Airplane Company and Boeing Air Transport merged with Pratt and Whitley to form United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. In 1930, a series of small airline acquisitions became United Air Lines.

As the conglomerate served every aspect of the aviation industry, it quickly amassed stifling power. The resultant 1934 Air Mail Act compelled aviation industries to separate flight operations from manufacturing.

A portrait of William E. Boeing around the time of his retirement from Boeing, displayed at the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Image Credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When Boeing’s company was broken up, he moved on

The Air Mail Act caused United Aircraft and Transport Corporation split into three entities: United Aircraft Corporation, Boeing Airplane Company and United Air Lines. Boeing resigned as chairman and sold his stock. Later in 1934, he was awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for engineering excellence, five years after Orville Wright won the inaugural award.

Boeing kept in touch with former colleagues and indeed returned to the company as a consultant during World War Two. He also had an advisory role in the launch of ‘Dash-80’ – later known as the Boeing 707 – the world’s first commercially successful jet airliner.

Boeing built communities with segregationist policies

Boeing then diversified into different sectors but particularly thoroughbred horse breeding and real estate. His housing policies were segregationist with the aim of producing new, white-only communities. Boeing’s developments could not be “sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person not of the White or Caucasian race”.

Latterly, Boeing spent his free time at the Seattle Yachting Club where, in 1956, three days before his 75th birthday, he died of a heart attack.

Tags: William E Boeing

Chris Smith