If you love air travel and the companies that made history in the not-so-friendly skies, get to know Boeing, the biggest aircraft manufacturer of them all.
The aerospace giant is one of the significant success stories in U.S. corporate history, with a background steeped in aviation business and technology lore. From commercial airplanes to space and security, the Boeing (BA) - Get Boeing Company Report brand is widely known the world over, and has been for over the past 100 years.
Buckle up and keep your seat trays upright as we delve into the history of the biggest aerospace company in the world.
Boeing was founded by William E. Boeing, a timber executive, in 1916, and was located in Seattle (it moved to Chicago in 2001.) Boeing was first known as Aero Products Company.
The origins of the company’s founding are worthy of a story of its own. Boeing, already wealthy from his ownership of various lumber companies in the northwest U.S., grew fascinated with aircraft after viewing one at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909. A year later, Boeing bought a wooden boat building plant right on the Duwamish River, which he would transform into an aircraft manufacturing plant.
By 1915, Boeing had caught the flying bug so badly that he began taking lessons from a Los Angeles-based flight school and soon purchased his own private plan, a so-called “Flying Birdcage” seaplane which was held together by wood and wires. When the aircraft was shipped to Seattle, Boeing and his team found production flaws which were further pronounced after a crash during a testing flight.
Rather than wait months for the proper parts to be delivered, Boeing decided he could do the job himself in a much shorter time, which convinced him that he was on the right track with his new airline company.
The Aero Products Company name didn’t last long after that, as Boeing changed its name to the Boeing Airplane Company in 1917. Its first source of income came from the U.S. military, as Boeing began building various military aircraft (patrol bombers were a mainstay) in the 1920s and 1930s.
William Boeing viewed his company as a visionary presence in the aviation market, and welcomed input and ideas from all of his employees.
“We are embarked as pioneers upon a new science and industry in which our problems are so new and unusual that it behooves no one to dismiss any novel idea with the statement that ‘it can’t be done!” he famously said in 1928.
With that pioneering mindset, Boeing also began selling aircraft to deliver mail to far-flung American cities and towns and, in the late 1920s, once again adjusted its business model to encompass aircraft manufacturing and airline flights. In 1931, it morphed several smaller airlines into a single large airline, better known as United Airlines (UAL) - Get United Airlines Holdings, Inc. Report. It also bought up various aircraft manufacturing companies, including Avion and Pratt & Whitney.
After a series of name changes, the company went back to the name Boeing Airplane Company and was highly instrumental in building military aircraft in the second world war, including the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-29 Superfortress. After the war, the B-47 Stratojet and the eight-engine B-52 Stratofortress followed.
With the war years over, Boeing returned to the idea of building commercial planes that could take customers across the country in a single flight. That meant shifting from propeller-based aircraft to turbojets, which was not popular with airlines, who had poured millions of dollars into propeller-based airplanes.
It would take over 20 years for the industry transformation to turbojet airliners take root. Bolstered by large order from the U.S. Air Force, Boeing spent abundant time and money on its transatlantic airliner, and by 1958, it finally rolled out the 707, which immediately went into service for Pan American Airlines.
The 707 was a huge hit with the public, who were amazed to fly from New York to Los Angeles in a few short hours and, as a result, orders for Boeing’s new aircraft line were sky high during the 1960s. That momentum led to the development of the 737 in 1964 and the 747 in 1970, which caused so many production problems that it almost bankrupted the company. By the end of the 20th century, however, the Boeing 747, with 400 seats and bigger and faster engines, became the highest-selling commercial airline of all time.
Truly, Americans have embraced air travel, and Boeing was the biggest name in the game.
As William Boeing put it early on during his company’s rise to prominence, “People want to ride on airplanes more and more each day. We are trustees of a veritable revolution.”
Race to Space
Boeing began branching out in the 1960s, first with a new line of helicopters, including the CH-47 Chinook and CH-46 Sea Knight military choppers, which rolled off assembly lines in 1961. The company also began developing missiles for the U.S. military, with its silo-launched Minuteman missile delivered in 1962.
But Boeing had even grander plans, as it began building both air- and land-craft for NASA. First came the Lunar Roving Vehicle, widely used on the Apollo space flights in the 1960s and 70s. Boeing also built a Lunar Orbiter, which first traveled around the moon in 1966. Boeing would also go on to build the Mariner 10 space probe and the initial Saturn V rockets that Apollo used to fly men to the moon in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Boeing would also begin building vehicles foe NASA’s space shuttle mission in the 1970s and continued to do so until NASA shuttered the project in 2011.
The 1980s saw Boeing refocus on the commercial airline sector, as it began work on the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 aircraft, which featured, for the first time, a common flight deck that enabled pilots to train and fly both aircraft, thus saving airlines millions of dollars in training and staffing costs.
Computerization in the form of computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software enabled Boeing to build its 777 aircraft in the 1990s, without having to build a physical frame for the aircraft first, saving time and money for the aviation company.
The 787 Dreamliner followed, not without presenting a host of production problems for Boeing. Building began in the early 2000s, but the Dreamliner didn't begin filling orders until 2011, as the plane routinely failed stress tests and suffered production flaws that held up production. In 2013, further problems developed, as the 787 was grounded for a short period of time by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, due to risk of battery fires on the aircraft.
In the end, though, the 787 proved to be the fastest and most fuel-efficient passenger aircraft in the industry, and hundreds of orders poured in from airlines around the world, ensuring another winning aircraft for the company, with annual revenues clocking in between $66 billion and $101 billion from 2006 and 2019.
By 2017, Boeing was building and delivering hundreds of their aircraft annually, with a total pre-order price tag of $134.8 billion, with more than 500 of the 737 model, the most ordered, 94 of the 787s and 60 of the 777 model. It continues to build aircraft at a robust pace, making it the top aircraft manufacturer in the world in 2019.
Boeing Stock at a Glance
At $300 per share, Boeing is nearing two-year lows as the company faces multiple problems heading into the new decade. Investors lost confidence in the company after its 737 MAX was grounded in March, 2019, a scenario that lead to the dismissal of then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg.
Add to the mix that fewer consumers are flying in early 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and the outlook for Boeing, and for all aviation companies, doesn’t look strong during the first half of 2020.