William Edward Boeing

Capitalizing on the need for new technology in fighting World War II, William Edward Boeing (1881-1956) became a key figure in American aviation.

William Edward Boeing went from being a general businessman to a giant in the aviation business during the 1940s. Most of this success came as a result of the need for new weapons. World War II was the first major war to be fought with the extensive use of airplanes in a variety of capacities, and airplanes were what Boeing provided.


Born in Detroit, Boeing studied at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University but left after two years without graduating. He then moved to Seattle, where he became a prominent timberman, landowner, and yachtsman. Inspired by the new field of aviation, he organized the Boeing Airplane Company in 1915 with a friend, Conrad Westervelt, hoping to build better airplanes than the wooden ones then being used. The Boeing Company began manufacturing airplanes in a seaplane hanger in Seattle, where he copied the designs of European planes used in World War I. Two of Boeing's seaplanes attracted the attention of the U.S. Navy, which encouraged Boeing to develop a new plane that would be used to train pilots. With America's entry into World War I the Boeing facilities expanded rapidly, but the company stagnated in the period between the wars. The company continued to have close ties to the military, and its reputation was based on building fighters during the 1920s and the 1930s. In 1934 his efforts were rewarded when he received the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for successful pioneering and achievement in aircraft design and manufacturing.

The Flying Fortress

During World War II the Boeing Company utilized technological innovations made during the 1930s. Boeing had begun expanding his factories in 1936 in anticipation of war, and the number of employees in the Seattle plants increased to 2,960 by the end of 1938, reaching 28,840 at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Boeing produced three basic types of planes for the military: the B-17 (designed in 1934), the B-29 (designed in 1938), and the Kaydet trainer. The B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-29 Superfortress were the foremost symbols of America's capacity to wage industrial warfare. Both bombers proved decisive in winning the war, particularly in the Pacific theater, where vast amounts of territory had to be covered. (A Boeing Superfortress carried the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.) At the end of the war Boeing's contracts to produce the bombers ended as well. The company laid off temporary war workers, many of whom were women. He tried to diversify the company's products by experimenting with manufacturing other consumer goods, including furniture, but he quickly realized the difficulty of using airplane factories to manufacture other commodities.

A New Industry

During the 1950s the Boeing Company prospered, though Boeing's health failed and he no longer had any financial connection with it. In the years of prosperity that followed World War II the Boeing Company profited from the expansion of the commercial airline industry by building the Boeing 707 passenger plane. Furthermore, with the advent of the Cold War the government continued to place enough orders to keep weapons manufacturers in business. At the time of Boeing's death in 1956 the company that he had founded had made America's largest jet bomber, the B-52.

Further Reading on William Edward Boeing

Peter M. Bowers, Boeing Aircraft Since 1916 (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1989).