On this day in economic and business history…
William The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA), founder of the aerospace company that still bears his name, was not an aircraft buff from the beginning — but he came pretty close. The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA), heir to tracts of timberland in the American West, as well as other valuable properties, dropped out of Yale at the age of 22 to master the logging business and make the most of his inheritance. The year he began his business career, 1903, also happened to be the year when the Wright brothers first proved that heavier-than-air powered flight was possible.
By 1908 The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) had amassed enough knowledge to found his own lumber company in Seattle, Wash. His wealth and prestige granted him early access to the infant aviation industry, and by the turn of the century, Boeing was hooked. In 1914, Boeing took his first flight, as a passenger, over Lake Washington. The Boeing company’s history page recounts its founder’s experience:
Boeing told writer Harold Mansfield that he sat beside [early aviator Terah] Maroney on the front edge of the lower muslin-covered wing and as the biplane banked away from the lake, he saw the whole landscape tilting up beside him like a flat picture plate. After a few more sessions with Maroney, Boeing and [Navy Lieutenant G. Conrad] Westervelt decided they could build a better airplane.
A year later, The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) attended a flight-training course held by aviation pioneer Glenn Martin, who had founded his own eponymous aircraft company in 1912. After taking delivery of his own Martin Model TA biplane, Boeing set out to hire a group of capable technical assistants to reverse-engineer and improve on Martin’s model. In the summer of 1916 Boeing personally test-flew his first home-brewed biplane, the Bluebill B&W Model 1. A month after this gutsy test (air shows at the time were spectacles that drew people expecting a crash), on July 15, 1916, William Boeing founded Pacific Aero Products — the direct ancestor to today’s massive aerospace company.
Boeing’s young company was born at just the right time, as the United States joined World War I a year later and was in urgent need of some training aircraft to help its naval aviators learn to fly. Pacific Aero Products delivered 50 trainer aircraft to the Navy before the war’s end, which proved to be Boeing’s greatest success for some time. Boeing would change the company’s name shortly after America’s entry into the war to the form you’re familiar with today.
After the 1918 armistice, The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) struggled to find buyers, and a glut of military-surplus biplanes kept the company from turning a profit for three long years. Boeing had held onto his timber business and set his stalled aviation company to work building furniture during the downtime, which provided enough liquidity to keep it aloft. Other orders for the construction of other manufacturers’ models helped as well, but Boeing needed its own aircraft to achieve lasting success Boeing enjoyed its first real peacetime success as an aviation manufacturer in 1927 when it won a contract to supply 26 airplanes to the U.S. Postal Service. The success of this relatively modest order allowed Boeing to grow rapidly. A year later, William Boeing could boast of his company operating “the largest plant in America devoted solely to the manufacture of aircraft, and at the present time employing approximately 1,000 men.”
In 1929, Boeing assembled the nation’s leading aviation company, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, by merging together several other major manufacturers and airlines. This company, which approached monopolistic size, joined the Dow Jones Industrial Average (Dow Jones Indices:.DJI) a year later, presaging Boeing’s addition to the Dow by nearly six decades. United’s control of the industry eventually led to an antitrust fight that the government won in 1934. William Boeing sold his shares and stepped down before the company could be broken apart. However, with capable leadership, all three of the post-split companies — Boeing (controlling the Western U.S. manufacturing operations), United Technologies Corporation (NYSE:UTX) (originally United Aircraft, controlling Eastern U.S. manufacturing operations), and United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE:UAL) — thrived for decades, and both halves of Boeing’s former aircraft-manufacturing operation wound up representing American industry on the Dow in later years.
Exactly 38 years after its founding, The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) entered the jet age with the first flight of its 367-80 prototype aircraft on July 15, 1954. Nicknamed the Dash 80, the prototype was Boeing’s first attempt to adapt the jet engines it had first installed on the B-47 bomber for commercial flight. It was also a big risk for Boeing, which was attempting to enter a market that had crashed, quite literally, with the tragic fatal crashes of more than a dozen de Havilland Comet jetliners from 1953 onward. After three years in development, the Dash 80 led to the rollout of The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA)’s first commercially successful jet: the 707, which took its test flight in late 1957 and was put into service shortly afterward.
Powered travel: The first generation
The most advanced form of commercial powered transportation and the most primitive happen to have been tested on the same day. It was on July 15, 1783 that the world’s first successful demonstration of steam-powered travel took place on the River Saone in Lyon, France. That day, Claude-Francois-Dorothee de Jouffroy, Marquis d’Abbans (let’s call him Claude) put a James Watt-model steam engine, installed on a 148-foot boat with paddle wheels called the Pyroscaphe, through its paces.