William Boeing

By: Victoria Yates

William Edward Boeing was born in Detroit, Michigan on the 1st of October 1881, the son of Wilhelm Boeing, a German mining engineer and entrepreneur, and Marie Boeing, an American.   He would eventually have three younger sisters: Marie, Gretchen, and Caroline. When Boeing was eight, his father died of influenza at only 42 years old. Marie went on to remarry, becoming Marie Owsley but William did not get on with his stepfather and was sent to boarding school in Vevey, Switzerland.

Although only there for a year, the schooling would have a profound impact on Boeing who was said to have a strong sense of outward correctness throughout his life. He continued his education in public and private schools back in the United States before enrolling in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1899.

Boeing remained there until 1902 but did not graduate. Instead, the following year at 22 years old, he dropped out and moved to Grays Harbor, Washington where he taught himself the logging business (both his father and maternal grandfather had worked in the trade) on inherited land. He started to build his own fortune on top his family inheritance, and began exploring, going on outfitting expeditions to Alaska.

In 1908, he moved to Seattle and created Greenwood Timber Co. As he moved up in society, taking on residence in exclusive suburbs, having a yacht built, buying more property, he was also increasingly fascinated with airplanes. He had seen his first manned flying machine in 1909 and, a year later attended a Los Angeles aviation gathering where he tried and failed to get a ride on a biplane. 

It wasn’t long before he bought his own plane from the Glenn L. Martin Company, and began taking flying lessons. But when he broke part of his plane and was told of the long delay before new parts would be available, Boeing hit the roof, declaring to his friend Cdr. George Conrad Westervelt that they could build better planes themselves much more efficiently. The pair built the B & W Seaplane, an outstanding amphibian biplane; Boeing had found his new field.

He bought an old boat factory on the Duwamish River near Seattle and in 1916 went into business with Westervelt under the name B&W, founding the Pacific Aero Products Co on July 15th 1916. Their first plane was the Boeing Model 1. Inspired by a need for somewhere to test their airplanes, Boeing paid to construct a wind tunnel at the University of Washington in exchange for the university establishing a program in the new field of aeronautics.

After the USA entered the war in 1917, the Pacific Aero Products Co. was renamed the Boeing Airplane Company, taking on a military commission of 50 planes for the Navy. When conflicts ended they turned their attention back to commercial aircraft. But the company struggled to get by, diversifying into odd items like phonograph cases and corset fixtures. As part of the Canadian exposition, Boeing and Eddie Hubbard (the pilot) flew Boeing’s personal plane to deliver letters from Vancouver home to Seattle. It was the first international airmail to reach the US. They found their stride and by 1921 the company had stabilised and reaffirmed its place in commercial flight, with a particular focus on airmail contracts.

That year, Boeing married Bertha Potter Paschall, the descendant of merchant bankers, who already had two young sons, Nathaniel and Cranston. They later went on to have another son, William Boeing Jr. in 1923.

His innovation and foresight allowed Boeing to trump competition in high stakes bids like the Chicago to San Francisco airmail route where he choose to fit his mailplane with air-cooled engines over the traditional water-cooled option. The terms of the contract meant Boeing had to underwrite a half a million-dollar bond from his own money, but it paid off. It was the start of the company’s mass production of commercial crafts.

In February 1929, Boeing Airplane and Transport Corporation became United Aircraft and Transport Corp. The company now included several airlines, manufacturers, and a school for pilot and maintenance personnel.

In 1934, Boeing was awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for successful pioneering and achievement in aircraft manufacturing and air transport. That same year however, the Government enacted antitrust laws and accused Boeing of monopolistic practices. The company was split into three enterprises, with Boeing resigning and selling his stock.

He nevertheless continued in the timber business until 1954 and got involved in racehorse breeding. He did well, eventually accumulating a stable of 40 horses and substantial wins.

He also continued to be an avid explorer, cruising aboard the Taconite (a luxurious 125-foot yacht he had financed to keep the Vancouver boat builders Hoffar-Beeching Co. solvent through the Great Depression). His love of machinery carried over to the sea, ensuring his yacht was always equipped with the newest gadgetry. She was the first civilian vessel with a two-way radio as well as the first to have radar.  He also continued to fly with a pilot, buying new amphibian aircraft to travel from the yacht to the Alaskan coast for fishing, something he also become somewhat of an expert in during the latter 1930s.

When World War II broke out, his company was awarded large warplane commissions and Boeing returned as an advisor.

In 1942, Boeing and his family moved to a 500-acre estate near Fall City. He took up animal husbandry and is widely credited as being influential in improving the standards of registered beef stock in the Northwest. He also completely mechanised his farm, building Washington’s only non-commercial grass dehydrating plant. He was very hands-on, touring every acre of his land on foot and later by car as his mobility declined.

Boeing died on September 28th 1956, three days before his seventy-fifth birthday, after suffering a heart attack while aboard the Taconite. In 1966, he was memorialized in the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton for his outstanding contribution to aviation.

His undiminished enthusiasm and interest in the mechanics of the world brought Boeing deeply into so many different worlds, but it is in aeronautics that his big thinking and attention to detail has left the biggest leadership legacy. Today, Boeing is still synonymous with perfectionism and innovation.