How Boeing Was Founded

All great stories have a beginning. Companies, in particular, have a very clear, at least formal, commencement. One hundred and five years ago, as aviation was transitioning from potential to reality, William E. Boeing put ink to paper and incorporated Pacific Aero Products. This is the origin story of the Boeing Company.

Rossiya Airlines' Boeing 747-400 EI-XLJ lands in Vladivostok
The Boeing 747 was a far cry from the Boeing Model 1 built in a hangar by Lake Union in Seattle. Photo: Getty Images

Thirteen years after the first crewed flight

On July 15th, 1916, in Seattle, Washington, the first step was taken towards what was to one century later form one half of the world’s duopoly of aircraft manufacturers. Thirteen years earlier, the Wright brothers had successfully completed the first crewed flight in North Carolina.

Six years before its founding, in 1910, a 29-year-old timber merchant named William Edward Boeing had visited the first Los Angeles International Air Meet and become passionate about aviation and its potential. In 1915, at another air show, Mr Boeing took his very first plane ride on board a Curtiss seaplane. Later that year, he built a hangar next to Lake Union in Seattle.

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Bluebell and Mallard first international sales

Shortly thereafter, together with US Navy officer and engineer Conrad Westervelt, he designed a single-engine biplane called the Boeing Model 1. This was also known as the ‘B & W Seaplane’ from the initials of its creators. Boeing himself took the first plane, named Bluebell, on its maiden flight on June 15th, 1917. It was sold to New Zealand one year later, along with Mallard, the second of its kind.

B&W seaplane
A replica of Boeing’s first plane hangs at the Seattle Museum of Flight. Photo: KudzuVine via Wikimedia Commons

The first military contracts

At first, Mr Boeing named his endeavor the Pacific Aero Products Company and incorporated it for $100,000. He then bought 998 of the 1,000 stocks issued at its incorporation. However, the name did not last long, and the company changed it to Boeing Airplane Company one year into its existence.

In July 1917, a few months after the US had entered World War I, the navy ordered 50 of the Boeing model C airplane. All were built and delivered by November the following year. The company hired engineers, among them Clairmont L. Egtvedt and Philip G. Johnson, recent graduates who would both go on to become presidents of the company.

Another major military contract followed for 50 of the HS-2L, a patrol flying boat designed by Curtiss. However, this was cut in half when World War I came to an end in November 1918. The civilian need for aircraft was filled by idle military planes, and so Boeing began making furniture and ‘sea sled’ boats to stay afloat.

Boeing Model C
The Boeing Model C plane was the company’s first production aircraft. Photo: Boeing

BB-1 second international alumni

The first Boeing-designed commercial aircraft, the Boeing Model 6-B1, took its first flight on December 27th, 1919. It was followed by the BB-1 seaplane in January the following year. The BB-1 was sold to Canada, marking the company’s second international deal.

In parallel to events in Seattle, the other parts of what was to become the behemoth planemaker as we know it were taking shape. In 1921, the first aircraft wholly designed and built by the Davis Douglas Company named the Cloudster took to the skies for the first time in California.

Meanwhile, James Smith McDonnell formed J.S. McDonnell & Associates in Milwaukee in 1926. While his ideas of producing personal aircraft for family use came to naught due to the Great Depression, in 1938, he left manufacturer Glenn L Martin to set up the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in Missouri. It did very well as a result of WWII.

The two companies merged in April 1967 to form McDonnell Douglas. It wasn’t until 1996 that Boeing acquired its long-time rival, turning two of the major players in aviation into one giant entity. However, that is a story for another time.