Pioneers in Aviation: William Boeing

William Boeing was an aviator with a different upbringing than what you would imagine, nothing to do with engineering or even military. Aiming to profit from the Northwest timber industry from an early age, yet he went on to create one of the biggest aerospace companies ever known, one known in almost all households.

William Boeing

Born October 1st 1881 in Detroit, Michigan to a wealthy mining engineer Wilhelm Böing and Marie M. Ortmann. From Germany and Austria. Boeing Sr had made his fortune through timber and mineral rights near Lake Superior in North America. Up until 1899 young Boeing was educated in Vevey, Switzerland, when he returned he changed his name to William Boeing. Studying at Yale University, Boeing left before graduating in 1903. Starting a new life in Grays Harbour, Washington, he aimed to profit from the lands that he had inherited from his father, who had died of Influenza in 1890. He learned the logging business on his own, eventually buying more timber land and adding more wealth to the approximately $1 million estate left to him (around £26.8 in today’s money) by his parents. This included expeditions to Alaska. One of the main reasons for his success was due to him shipping lumber to the east coast using the Panama Canal.

In 1908 he moved to Seattle, to establish the Greenwood Timber company. He started off by living in an apartment hotel, but after just a year he got elected as a member of the Highlands, a brand-new, exclusive residential suburb. During this time, Boeing was interested in boats, and often experimented with boat designs. So much so in 1910 he bought the Heath shipyard on the Duwamish River. This was so he could build a yacht, named the Taconite, after the mineral that made his father’s fortune. His love of aircraft came from a trip while in Seattle in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair publicizing development in the Pacific Northwest. Boeing was visiting as he had interests in the area. While there he saw a manned flight, and he became fascinated.

Taconite
The Taconite, the 125ft teak yaght built by Boeing

In 1910 Boeing attended an aviation meet in Los Angeles, where he tried to get a ride on a boxy biplane, he didn’t succeed. This didn’t deter him though, he took flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Fling School in Los Angeles, and even purchased one of his planes, a Martin TA Hydroaeroplane. James Floyd Smith, a Martin pilot travelled to Seattle to assemble Boeing’s plane and teach him how to fly it. Smith assembled the plane in a tent hanger on the shore of Lake Union, and so Boeing became a pilot. At some point, Boeing’s test pilot broke the plane enough for it to be unusable. Martin informed Boeing that the parts would take months to become available, obviously this was an inconvenience. In 1915, Boeing was introduced to Navy Lieutenant G. Conrad Westervelt, and they soon became close friends. When a mutual friend brought a Curtis-type hydroplane to Seattle later that year, they took turns flying it over lake washington. After just a few trips, Boeing and Westervelt felt that they could build a better airplane. Boeing decided to buy an old boat works on the Duwamish river in Seattle for his factory and set up shop, he was now in the aircraft business.

Boeing Plant
The Boeing Plant on the Duwamish River around 1917

Together with Westervelt they built and flew the B&W seaplane. This was an amphibious biplane that had outstanding performance compared to it’s competitors. This sealed the deal for him, and Westervelt. Together they founded Pacific Aero Products Co in 1916. Their first plane, basically the B&W Seaplane was named the Boeing Model 1. At this time, the world was in the middle of World War 1, and on April 8th 1917, the United States joined the fight. Suddenly there was a need for defence manufacturers. A month later, The name was changed from Pacific Aero Products, to the Boeing Airplane Company. The United States Navy ordered 50 planes from Boeing. When the war ended, the need for military aircraft dwindled, and Boeing started concentrating on the lucrative supply of commercial aircraft. He secured mass contracts to supply airmail, and also created a passenger airline that would later go on to become United Airlines.

B&W Seaplane
The B&W Seaplane, sitting on the water

In 1934 the Boeing company had become massive considering the time. It had an airmail business, commercial airline, manufacturing of planes and many other branches of interest. This sparked controversy in the US government, and he was accused of monopolistic practices. That year the Air Mail Act forced airplane companies to separate flight operations from the manufacturing of planes. At this point Boeing separated himself from the company, and divested himself of ownership. The company was then split into three sections. The United Aircraft Corporation a manufacturing arm, based in the east, Now United TechnologiesUnited Airlines which handled flight operations, and still functions as such, and Boeing Airplane Company which was manufacturing based in the west, this went on to become the Boeing Company that we all know today. By 1937 he had started spending most of his time breeding horses, and the new Boeing Company would not become truly successful until World War 2.

Boeing spent the remainder of his life in property development, and the breeding of thoroughbred horses. He was said to be worried about the tensions in the Pacific Northwest due to WW2. This led him to purchase a 650 acre farm east of Seattle. He called it “Aldarra”. He would go on to die September 28th, 1956 at the age of 74 (a year before the release of the release of the 707). He died of a heart attack while on his yacht. His estate was eventually sold off and turned into a golf course in 2001, but parts still remain today, including Boeing’s main home, and two smaller houses. His house in the Highlands was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also a creek running near his house in the Highlands was renamed Boeing Creek after him.

Boeing Creek
The Creek named after Boeing, running near his house in the Highlands