When William E. Boeing incorporated Pacific Aero Products on July 15, 1916, near Seattle, it was just one of dozens of fledgling aircraft companies in an infant industry. It was logical for a lumberman like Boeing to get into the business, because at the time planes were made mostly from wood. Nobody could have foreseen what the Boeing Airplane Company — the new name the enterprise adopted after America entered World War One — would one day become.
Today, Boeing is the biggest builder of commercial and military airplanes in the world. It is also a leading provider of rotorcraft, spacecraft, launch vehicles, missiles and aerospace services. With an order backlog of nearly half a trillion dollars, Boeing has been America’s biggest exporter for over a decade, and is ranked as one of the world’s most admired companies. We look at the journey to 100 below.
Production spins up.
Boeing built his first factory in a former shipyard on the banks of Washington’s Duwamish River. In the “Red Barn,” craftsmen and women built parts by hand, primarily from wood and fabric. Engineers worked upstairs, and builders and accountants down below. Boeing built propellers in the early 1920s for MB-3A Army pursuit biplanes, used from 1922 to 1925. The company’s mass production methods allowed it to underbid other manufacturers, but still make a profit.
The birth of the modern transport plane.
The Boeing Model 200 Monomail of the early 1930s dropped the biplane configuration in favor of a single, cantilever wing, and 575-hp Pratt and Whitney Hornet engines. All metal construction and retractable landing gear marked it out as one of the first modern transport airplanes, even if the pilot still flew from an open cockpit at the rear. The Model 200 carried mail on the San Francisco-Chicago route, and the Boeing Monomail 221 updated the design to carry eight passengers in a compartment at the front.
The B-29 bomber changes the world of war.
Boeing submitted a proposal for the B-29 Superfortress to the US Army in 1940, just before the country joined the fray of WWII. The long-range, heavy duty bomber was outfitted with the very latest tech, including a pressurized cabin and aft crew area, connected by a long tube over the bomb bays. In one of the first uses of computers on a plane, it had remote control weaponry, so one gunner and fire control officer could direct four machine gun turrets.
In 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later a second B-29, Bockscar, dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, changing the course of world history.
The B-47 introduces modern jet design.
The Boeing B-47 Stratojet was designed to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. It (thankfully) never saw combat as a bomber, but its radical new design made it ideal as a photographic and electronic reconnaissance plane. First flown in 1947, its 116-foot, swept back wings, and six pod-mounted jet engines made it look unlike anything that had come before, and helped set the design standards still used today. The first models had 18 small rocket units in the fuselage for “jet-assisted takeoff,” and used parachutes to cut the landing speed.
The 707 births the commercial jet age.
By the 1950s, jet engines were ready for the mainstream. Although it wasn’t the first jet airliner, the 707 was the first to deliver commercial success. Boeing considers the plane’s first test flight, in 1954, the day it came to dominate commercial aviation. The plane ultimately became the workhorse of the world’s major airlines, as well as the first purpose-builtAir Force One.
Then convinces Americans to climb aboard.
On October 26, 1958, Pan American World Airways flew the inaugural transatlantic 707 jet service between New York and Paris, with one fuel stop in Newfoundland. Promotional materials filled with images of families promised a quicker, smoother, comfortable, and safe flight. The 707’s popularity pushed the development of airports, which needed upgraded terminals and baggage handling for the growing passenger numbers, as well as air traffic control systems. But in the end the 707 proved too small to handle them all.
Boeing builds a massive new factory.
The Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, where the 747 is built, is the largest building in the world by volume. Currently a Target warehouse in Savannah, Georgina ranks as number two, and the assembly hall of the Airbus A380 in Toulouse, France is at number three. Tesla’s Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada will push its way into second place when it’s finished.
The 747 carries the world.
Building on the success of the 707, Boeing made the world’s first widebody jet. When it entered commercial service in 1970, the 747-100 could hold 500 people—more than twice as many as a 707. New large-thrust jet engines took it up to 570 mph. Boeing thought the 747 would quickly become obsolete, when the long promised supersonic passenger jets entered regular service, but since that whole thing didn’t really work out, the plane’s still rolling off the assembly line, in variants that offer choices between passenger seats, and cargo, and long and short range.
The experiments continue.
In a neat loop-de-loop, Boeing started its century with woven canvas and ended it with woven carbon fiber. Building the 787 Dreamliner from one-piece composite barrel sections instead of aluminum sheets, an all-new process, seriously delayed its debut. Now that it’s in operation, the 787 is Boeing’s most fuel efficient airliner, offering quiet, heavily pressurized cabins. It might not have a piano bar, but it’s setting the standards for modern flight. At least, until the next plane comes along.
For all the stresses and disappointments that result from being in a hyper-competitive industry, Boeing begins its second century in very good shape. No commercial rival can match the appeal of the 777X that will apply its 787 technology to a bigger airframe. No military rival has anything remotely approaching the capability of the Apache helicopter or the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor. The company is going gangbusters in space and services. Because of the lessons it learned earlier in its history, Boeing is a company with a future.