Nov 15 2022

A Brief Look at the History of Boeing

Chris Jones

Case Studies

Boeing is widely regarded as a behemoth in the global aviation industry with its iconic commercial airliners and military aircraft. From its beginnings in the lumber sector over a century ago, Boeing has risen to become one of the most recognizable names in aerospace with an extensive portfolio that includes spacecraft and even military weaponry.


Whether you’re a budding aircraft engineer, a student pilot in flight school, or simply someone passionate about the aviation sector, you should understand how this industry giant got to where it is today. With Boeing’s history rooted in technology, business, and defense, you could learn a thing or two about your chosen industry by knowing more about the company’s journey. To start, here is a brief overview of Boeing’s story through the years.


Starting from Timber


Boeing, originally named Aero Products Company, was established by timber executive William E. Boeing in 1916 in Seattle, Washington. Boeing, who already had a name in the lumber industry by owning various firms in the northwestern US, founded the company after he and naval officer Conrad Westervelt created the B&W or “Flying Birdcage” seaplane—an aircraft composed of metal wires and wood. Following a test flight crash and a few production flaws, Boeing took it upon himself to do the aircraft manufacturing work rather than wait a few months to have the right plane parts delivered. 


In 1917, Boeing changed the corporation’s name to Boeing Airplane Company and found a market in the US military. The company produced “flying boats” for the US Navy, which were used during World War I. By the 1920s, Boeing expanded his enterprise to include the Boeing Airplane & Transport Corporation. Through the 1930s, Boeing explored opportunities in airmail services while cementing the company’s status as one of the military’s biggest suppliers of torpedo planes, patrol bombers, pursuit planes, trainer aircraft, and observation planes.


As the company continued to grow, Boeing entered into a series of mergers and acquisitions. Its Boeing Airplane & Transport Corporation business arm was rebranded as United Aircraft and Transport Corporation to encompass both airline operations and aircraft manufacturing. Shortly after, the Boeing business acquired various aviation companies that remain recognizable today: Sikorsky Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, and Avion (eventually Northrop Aircraft). 


The Postwar Years


Boeing enjoyed prominence in the defense sector during World War II, with the company’s B-47 Stratojet, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29 Superfortress, and B-52 Stratofortress aircraft being mainstays in the military’s arsenal. 


After the war, Boeing began catering to the commercial market once again. To innovate the engineering of commercial planes, Boeing focused on building aircraft with turbojet engines rather than propellers, which were more prevalent in airliners of that time. In 1958, Boeing introduced the revolutionary 707 transatlantic liner which eventually went to Pan American Airlines.


Boeing hit it big with the 707 and started receiving huge orders for the aircraft. By the 1960s, Boeing started developing the 737 as well as the now-famous 747. However, the Boeing 747 faced various production issues that took a toll on the company’s finances. As the 20th century came to an end, Boeing overcame development struggles and significantly improved the Boeing 747 by expanding its seating capacity to 400 and incorporating larger, faster engines. To date, the 747 is still considered to be the world’s top-selling commercial plane.


The Space Race


Boeing also expanded its product portfolio to include military weapons. In 1962, the company rolled out its Minuteman missile, a silo-launched weapon designed for strategic deterrence. During the same period, Boeing started setting its eyes on space.


Still in the middle of the Cold War, the US enlisted Boeing to help the nation outperform Russia in reaching the new frontier. Boeing started developing aircraft as well as landcraft for NASA—one of which is the Lunar Roving Vehicle used on Apollo spaceflight missions to the moon from 1961 to 1972. Other Boeing products used for the space race include the Saturn V launch vehicle for the Apollo missions and the Mariner 10 robotic probe that was designed to cross the orbits of Venus and Mercury in the early 1970s.


Incorporating Modern Technology


When the 1980s rolled around, Boeing started developing its commercial products including the 757 and 767 aircraft, which had advanced flight decks with features designed to enable in-flight training. Boeing also started exploring computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), which helped the company engineer its 777 planes in the 1990s without the need for initial physical frames. It was also during this decade that Boeing acquired Rockwell International’s aerospace and defense business units, allowing the former to continue bolstering its efforts in the military and space verticals.


In the early 2000s, Boeing started developing a wide-body jetliner called the 787 Dreamliner. After a series of production problems and unsuccessful stress tests, Boeing began taking orders for the liner in 2011. A few years after, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the liner due to the risk of battery fires. Still, the 787 is regarded to be a highly fuel-efficient airliner and arguably the fastest of its type. 


Well into the 2020s, Boeing kept on pursuing efforts to innovate flights as we know them. Some of the company’s latest projects include antimicrobial coating for spacecraft, self-disinfecting surfaces, and the Boeing 777X twin-engine jetliner with folding wingtips (scheduled for delivery in 2023). 


Looking Ahead


There’s no doubt that Boeing has come a long way from building wooden planes held by wires. Despite a series of production mishaps and development obstacles, Boeing still managed to create aircraft and other product lines that generate millions of dollars in revenue along with thousands of jobs. 


The aerospace industry as a whole may have taken a hit due to the pandemic, but as we have learned from Boeing’s history, opportunities in the aviation landscape will never die. Now that the travel and airline industries are coming back, it’s truly a great time to pursue a career in building, flying, or serving in aircraft that sprouted from the hard work and grit of visionaries like William Boeing. In the end, people will always have a thirst for air travel as well as a never-ending fascination for the technologies that make it happen. 


Tags: flight school