February 12, 2007

Boeing

And the man behind the brand is...
William Boeing

Today there are more Boeings in the air than any other airplane. Boeing is America's #1 exporter with a 55% share of the most expensive product in the world not awarded by the bidding process. For a while in the beginning it looked like that product would be bedroom bureaus and chests, not airplanes.

It all began as a hobby for William Boeing. The son of a Great Lakes timber and iron baron William was raised in Michigan and educated in Switzerland.
He matriculated at Yale, for which he showed no particular proclivity. Before his class graduated William was in Washington state buying timber lands for the family business.

He settled in Hoquiam, Washington in 1903 at the age of 22. The lumber business continued to be good to Boeing. In 1912 William Boeing was introduced to Conrad Westervelt at the University Club in Seattle. The tow men hit it off immediately. Both liked fast boats and a lively hand of bridge. Both had studied engineering. And although neither had ever been in a plane both evinced an interest in early aviation.

Boeing and Westervelt began building seaplanes as a lark. On June 15, 1916 Boeing took off from Lake Union in a clumsy-looking flying machine christened Bluebill. It was their first successful flight. Shortly afterwards the Pacific Aero Products Company was incorporated with Boeing as president. The business would sell planes if possible but the two men were also prepared to operate flying schools, stage exhibitions, and carry passengers and freight.

World War I loomed on the horizon for America. The United States Navy became interested in developing successful seaplanes. The Bluebill would not be one of them. It flunked its Navy tests. Years later Boeing would sell the plane to New Zealand where it set altitude records but for now the Navy urged Boeing to hurry production on a new model. He hired an aeronautical engineer.

The United States declared war on April 8, 1917. The Navy scheduled tests for Boeing's new "C-model" planes in July. He packed two planes on trains bound for the Naval testing site in Pensacola, Florida.

The weather for the trials was abominable. Waves crested at over four feet, winds whipped the beaches at more than 35 mph. But the Navy fliers praised the Boeing "C" planes as the best they had ever flown. The Navy ordered 50 planes from the newly named Boeing Airline Company. William Boeing personally invested $30,000 to meet production goals.

The war ended and with it so did business. Boeing issued more stock to raise money, most of which he bought himself. Many aircraft companies simply went out of business. Boeing survived with the manufacture of non-aircraft items, mainly bedroom furniture and phonograph cases. Even with the new products it did not appear Boeing would survive.

In November 1919 Boeing landed a remodelling contract for a British plane. Over the next several years the company subsisted by building other engineer's designs and its remodeling contracts. Boeing supplied planes to Edward Hubbard, whose Hubbard Air Transport was the world's first airline. Finally convinced of the viability of his business Boeing surrendered the presidency and became Chairman of the Board in 1924.

In 1925 Boeing gambled on a new aircraft designed for the United States Postal Service. He sold only one Model 40. But in 1927 when postal bids were accepted for the western routes of the transcontinental mail system Boeing was ready.
The new Model 40A was so light and could carry such a greater payload than its competition that Boeing's bid was fully 50% of what the Post Office was prepared to pay. It was so low William Boeing had to personally underwrite a $500,000 bond to guarantee the job.

Even in the mail business where each additional letter was added revenue William Boeing insisted on including a passenger seat in the Model 40A.
"From the start of the mail operation, I looked ahead to the time when we could 'wash out' the mail and not care about it. I expected passengers to become of primary importance," he would say later.

The new division, Boeing Air Transport, was a success from the beginning with its versatile and popular Model 40A. Boeing secured more and more mail routes, eventually forming the original United Airlines. But the new Franklin Roosevelt administration became convinced that the original mail routes were awarded unfairly. After Federal investigations and hearings Roosevelt suspended all airmail contracts on February 9, 1934. the Army took over delivery of the mail.

It was a disaster from the outset. Planes crashed and men died.
There was over $300,000 in damage in the first few months. The cost of transporting a pound of mail went from $.54 to $2.21 a mile. The public outrage forced Roosevelt to reinstate mail bids but only to new or reorganized airlines. Companies like Boeing could either serve as carriers or manufacturers, but not both.

William Boeing chose neither. He had always intended to retire at 50 and was already three years into his intended "retirement." He was tired of the political headaches indigenous to the aircraft industry. He sold all his stock in Boeing.

William Boeing retired to a life of leisure as his company established itself as the world's leading manufacturer of airplanes. He dies on his yacht in Seattle in 1956, months before the introduction of the first commercial jet plane, the Boeing 707.

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