Portrait of William E. Boeing, 1934

Portrait of William E. Boeing, 1934

William Edward Boeing


William E. Boeing, the founder of one of the United States’ most high-profile corporations, was active in several different economic sectors both before and after establishing the aircraft manufacturing company that bears his name. The son of a wealthy Michigan lumber magnate, Boeing inherited a fortune from his father as a child and went on to an elite education at a Swiss boarding school and at Yale. Leaving college before graduating, he moved to Washington state and used his inheritance to begin investing in the timber industry. He soon became fascinated by the early airplane industry and organized one of the first major airplane manufacturers.


William E. Boeing (born October 1, 1881 in Detroit, MI; died September 28, 1956 in Seattle, WA), the founder of one of the United States’ most high-profile corporations, was active in several different economic sectors both before and after establishing the aircraft manufacturing company that bears his name. The son of a wealthy Michigan lumber magnate, Boeing inherited a fortune from his father as a child and went on to an elite education at a Swiss boarding school and at Yale. Leaving college before graduating, he moved to Washington state and used his inheritance to begin investing in the timber industry. He soon became fascinated by the early airplane industry and organized one of the first major airplane manufacturers. While he relinquished control of the company in the 1930s, he went on to pursue a variety of ventures in real estate and other fields before dying at age 74 aboard his beloved yacht Taconite.

Family Background

William Edward Boeing was born on October 1, 1881 in Detroit, Michigan to Wilhelm Böing and Marie Ortmann. Wilhelm Böing, Boeing’s father, was the scion of a well-to-do family from Hohenlimburg, a town that is now part of the larger city of Hagen in what is now the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Böing served in the Prussian army and was a veteran of the brief Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Böing immigrated to the United States in 1868 with little money of his own, but with letters of introduction to be given to German families living in Detroit. He worked several jobs—on a farm, a lumberyard, and in a hardware store—before meeting Karl Ortmann, himself a German-speaking immigrant from Vienna and a local lumberman.[1]

Prior to Böing’s arrival, there had been two “waves” of German immigration into Michigan. Few Germans were present in the area prior to the 1820s, most of them Hessian veterans of the American War of Independence. The construction of the Erie Canal facilitated access to available lands around the Great Lakes and thus made it easier for migrating Germans to find new homes there. The Napoleonic Wars of the first two decades of the nineteenth century generated considerable unrest in the German-speaking lands, particularly in southern Germany, that lasted into the 1830s. Meanwhile, tariff reform in Germany made it easier for Germans to travel to port cities like Bremen and Hamburg to board ships for the United States. By 1840 or so, Germans had arrived in Michigan in significant numbers. A second wave of German immigration occurred after 1848, in the wake of the revolutions that swept Europe in that year. Most of the early German immigrants came from southern and western Germany and tended to be, like many other immigrants, landless farmers, though businessmen and artisans also came to Michigan in the late 1840s.[2]

Germans were well established in Michigan by the late 1860s, and thus Böing was able to take advantage of common ethnic ties to other Germans. This is not to say that German communities in Michigan were monolithic; Germans were divided along urban/rural, religious, and political lines. Böing’s particular heritage may also have worked in his favor. Unlike Böing, German immigrants to Michigan after the Civil War tended to come from northeastern and eastern Germany, and were often viewed with disdain, not only by native-born Americans, but also earlier German immigrants because of their relative lack of education and a perception that they were not “fully” German. Böing came from a more prosperous Westphalian family which may have given him access to Germans in a position to provide better opportunities than other German immigrants at the time would have had. Furthermore, the German community in Detroit was growing. Indeed, by 1880, twelve years after Böing’s arrival, Germans were the largest foreign-born population in Detroit and made up 28% of the city’s households.[3]

After working for Ortmann for five years, Böing married Ortmann’s daughter Marie and went into business for himself. The rich lumber and iron ore resources of Minnesota provided opportunities for considerable profit, which Böing reaped to great advantage. Böing’s successful timber business allowed him to expand his interests into banking, manufacturing, and insurance. This enabled him to provide well for his wife and three children, William, Caroline, and Gretchen. Böing’s stature rose in the community; he anglicized his family name to Boeing, built a fine house in one of Detroit’s most genteel neighborhoods and helped fund Detroit’s first art museum in 1883.[4]

While on a business trip to New York in 1890, Wilhelm contracted influenza and died while on the train returning to Detroit. Only forty-two years old, Wilhelm left behind his wife Marie and his three young children; William, the eldest, was only eight. Marie eventually remarried a Virginia physician and left Detroit. William was sent off to boarding school in Vevey, Switzerland and later attended other prestigious schools in the United States. After attending his last preparatory school in Boston, Massachusetts, William Boeing entered Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School as an engineering student in 1899. Though the engineering program there was for three years, Boeing left Yale after completing only two.[5]

This move may have been precipitated not only by Boeing’s sense of adventure, but also by his apparent dislike of his stepfather. Boeing looked westward to Washington State; in 1903, he traveled to the town of Hoquiam on Grays Harbor, a bay on the Pacific coast. Like his father, Boeing sought to make his mark in the timber business, and his father had already purchased significant land holdings in the area. Boeing also inherited additional resources after the death of his mother, Marie, in 1910. The nation’s rapid industrial growth fueled its need for lumber and as the timberlands of the upper Midwest were beginning to be depleted, and the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest offered the next best opportunity.

Business Development

Boeing’s family resources helped him to get his start; the lands that he inherited from his father gave him a base from which to learn the timber business. With these lands and the help of his friend J.H. Hewitt, who had good business connections, Boeing started the Greenwood Timber Company. In May 1908, the U.S. Navy’s “Great White Fleet” voyage stopped at Grays Harbor and Boeing used the opportunity to execute a long-planned move to Seattle, piloting his own 45-foot boat up the coast following the fleet and then down Puget Sound to Seattle. In 1908, he moved to an apartment in Seattle’s fashionable First Hill neighborhood. Though Boeing’s father had never realized any profit from his mineral rights, they proved to be lucrative to his descendants: on her death, Boeing’s mother Marie left her son an estate worth nearly $1 million (approximately $24 million in 2010 dollars).[6]

Looking back on his first ten years in the Pacific Northwest, Boeing wrote in 1914 that “At first I did not enthuse very much about this country, but now I am fond of it, and would not consider leaving it.” The benefit of the timber business, he added, was “keeping one out of doors a great deal.”[7] As profitable as Washington timber was, however, Boeing would not be content to remain a lumberman. By 1910, Boeing became interested in airplanes and flying after attending an air show near Los Angeles, California. Though Boeing pressed one of the pilots at the show for a ride, the pilot left without giving him one. Despite this, Boeing’s experience at the show sparked his interest in flight with which his name would become synonymous. It would be several years, however, before Boeing could begin to fully realize this. Though his considerable personal wealth was no doubt an advantage, Boeing needed to make another connection. This he did in 1914, when he met the naval aviator George Conrad Westervelt.[8]

Westervelt, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, became interested in flight when he attended an air meet in New York as a Navy observer. In 1911, he was sent west to Seattle to be stationed at a local shipyard as a submarine inspector. Both he and Boeing were members of the University Club, and a mutual acquaintance introduced the two men to each other. Boeing and Westervelt shared interests in airplanes, boating, and bridge and they soon became friends. When an aviator named Terah Mahoney came to Seattle in July of 1915 with his Curtiss seaplane, the two friends took several rides with Mahoney.[9]

Boeing proceeded to cultivate his interest in flight in earnest. He applied to the Glenn L. Martin Flying School in Los Angeles to learn to become a pilot himself and began his course in the late summer of 1915. After completing his flight training, Boeing purchased a Model TA seaplane from Martin’s factory for his personal use. He also assembled a crew to help him, particularly with airplane maintenance. The Martin aircraft had arrived with an obsolete pontoon, which Boeing had it replaced. Even with the new pontoon, the plane crashed into Lake Washington during a flight in the fall of 1915. Boeing was not on board, but was nonetheless unimpressed with the aircraft’s performance. Although at this point he was still a hobbyist pilot, he became more interested in the design and construction of airplanes and was convinced that he could build a better airplane. His engineering education helped him recognize good design, but more significantly, he was able to identify the engineering expertise he would need to get into the airplane business. Furthermore, he had the resources to keep a risky concern like a new airplane company going. Lumber from the Pacific Northwest was in high demand as a building material and produced a reliable source of income. Boeing’s personal wealth thus was a crucial advantage in the company’s early years.[10]

Boeing’s entry into the airplane business followed a pattern similar to that of other designers and manufacturers. A small aircraft industry had begun to spring up in the years following the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. By 1914, there were sixteen U.S. firms engaged in building airplanes, though their collective production up until that point was only 49 total aircraft. Like Boeing, the founders of these companies were inspired by their enthusiasm for flight and their desire to take part in something exciting and new. Few had any formal education in engineering or design. The airplane market at this time was a limited one; only wealthy sportsmen or someone with some kind of financial backing could afford an airplane. Furthermore, there was little vision at the time of the possible applications of the airplane as a mode of transport or a weapon of war. Most people’s experience of airplanes would have been as spectators at aerial shows and expositions, as Boeing’s was. Although Boeing aircraft today are synonymous with commercial aviation, it is not clear that this was something that motivated Boeing in the early years of his firm. What appeared to drive him forward, as with other aviation pioneers, was the desire to innovate.[11]

To aid him in his new endeavor, Boeing enlisted the aid of his associates Westervelt and a mechanic/pilot named Herb Munter. Westervelt had already made contacts with the staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wind tunnel (the facility Boeing used to test wooden models of his first airplane) and was charged with the design of a new aircraft. Westervelt’s design was very similar to that of the Martin Model TA, the main difference being that Boeing and Westervelt’s plane used two pontoons and two outriggers for stability, in contrast to the Martin’s single pontoon. In a hangar on Lake Union, a small lake surrounded by the city of Seattle, Boeing and Westervelt assembled their first plane, the Bluebill, which they later named the B&W (for Boeing and Westervelt) Model 1. The plane made its first test flight on June 15, 1916, and the B&W Model 1 became the first in a long line of Boeing aircraft.[12]

The Boeing company was officially born on July 15, 1916, when Boeing filed articles of incorporation for the Pacific Aero Products Company. The articles of incorporation were very broadly written and legally the company could do just about whatever it wanted. Westervelt had by this time been transferred to a new posting on the East Coast and, apart from a visit in August 1916 to help organize the new firm, ended his business relationship with Boeing. Boeing was a flight enthusiast, but he was also an astute businessman and knew that the market for aircraft was at the time a limited one. In early 1917, the company only had 28 employees.[13] Among the first employees hired was Wong Tsu, an emigrant from China who was one of the first graduates of a new program in aeronautical engineering established at MIT. Wong was also an airplane enthusiast and had taken lessons in flying Curtiss seaplanes. Wong met Westervelt on the East Coast and was steered by him towards working with Boeing. At the new company, he was given the responsibility for using information gleaned from wind tunnel studies to design a new seaplane. Yet Boeing would need to wait to find an opening to expand his aircraft manufacturing operations.[14]

That opening came with the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. Prior to that, Boeing had been able to finance expansion of his aircraft operations through the profits of his lumber business, which was doing quite well because of European wartime demand. An avid yachtsman, Boeing had purchased the Heath Shipyard on the Duwamish River in 1910 in order to be guaranteed a place where he could have boats built and repaired. His favorite boat was a yacht named Taconite, after the mineral that had provided his family fortune. Boeing had an improved version of the original B&W Model 1, called the Model C, built at the shipyard on the basis of designs developed by Wong. The main construction area was a converted building called the Red Barn, which became an iconic location in Boeing company history. After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Boeing hoped that the U.S. Navy would be interested in his Model C as a flight trainer. The Navy tested two Model Cs and was sufficiently impressed to order 50 more of them, which produced a contract worth $575,000 (nearly $10 million in 2010 dollars). The company—renamed the Boeing Airplane Company in May 1917—was off and running. Boeing could now devote more effort to the production of aircraft and not just experimentation with design.[15]

Seattle was not an obvious place to found an aviation company. The city had experienced spectacular growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; it grew from 1,100 people in 1870 to 237,000 by 1910. Yet manufacturing was a relatively small part of the city’s economy. Instead, Seattle was a commercial city serving a hinterland whose primary export was lumber (Washington was the leading producer of timber in the United States by 1905). The arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in 1893 connected Seattle to wider markets in the interior of the United States, spurring further growth. The discovery of gold in Canada’s Klondike region in 1897 also contributed to the boom in Seattle’s population, as the city became the key supply and shipping point for miners seeking their fortunes in Alaska and the Yukon (and Seattle has been the gateway to trade with Alaska ever since). When the United States entered World War I, manufacturing in the Puget Sound area consisted mainly of shipbuilding, which rapidly grew to become the second largest industry, behind timber.[16]

Boeing’s plant operations, located on the Duwamish River southwest of Seattle (just beyond the city limits at the time), expanded to about one hundred workers building airplanes and an office staff of about a dozen. Boeing himself left the day-to-day operations to his managers and spent most of his time in his downtown Seattle office or in Washington, D.C., which enabled him to maximize his efforts in finding new (and steady) business for his company. In the same way that Boeing excelled at finding the right people to design and produce his company’s airplanes, he also excelled at identifying his key market: the U.S. government, specifically the armed forces. In addition to the Model C contract, Boeing also had an agreement with the Navy to build, under license, the Curtiss HS-2L patrol seaplane. While these contracts were vital for the establishment of the Boeing Airplane as a going concern, the end of the war in November 1918 brought their cancellation. During the war, Boeing was compelled to loan his own money to the company in order to pay his workforce and at war’s end, he laid off most of his workers in response to reduced demand for airplanes; the company payroll dropped from 337 people in May 1918 to 67 in 1919.[17]

The years immediately following World War I were difficult ones for the Boeing Company. A postwar depression hit many businesses hard, and fledgling businesses like aircraft were particularly affected. Boeing made use of the company’s general incorporation and his factory produced a number of things that were not aircraft, such as furniture and phonograph cases, taking advantage of the company’s skilled woodworkers and the region’s abundant supply of lumber. Boeing also sought to expand his company’s business into the civilian sector. Though passenger travel was still many years away, airplanes could be useful for the transport of mail. In March 1919, Boeing and pilot Eddie Hubbard flew (in a modified version of the Model C plane) to Vancouver, British Columbia to pick up mail to fly back to Seattle. Though lack of fuel forced them to land twenty-five miles north of Seattle, this was the first international airmail flight to the United States and the company’s first step into commercial aviation, though this would take several more years to develop.[18]

Boeing’s company weathered the lean years after World War I and had begun to show a profit by servicing military aircraft. Boeing’s relationship with the military paid off again in 1921 when he won a contract to build twenty bombers for the U.S. Army. The 1920s saw a growing interest in air power among military planners, and U.S. Army General Billy Mitchell called for a separate air service. The newly established Army Air Service became a new customer; this time, the company got a contract to produce GA-1 and GA-2 heavy bombers. The bombers were Army-designed; instead of competing with other designers and potentially losing the contract to produce, Boeing decided early on to focus on production, where he had an advantage because of his extensive timberland holdings. The Army canceled the contract for the GA-1 bombers after only ten were built (instead of the planned 20) and Boeing ended up producing only 3 of the GA-2 bombers. Yet the Army awarded Boeing a larger contract to build 200 Thomas-Morse designed MB-3 pursuit (fighter) planes. Six other companies, including Thomas-Morse, bid on the contract, but Boeing’s bid of $1.4 million ($17 million in 2010 dollars) was by far the lowest. Once again, Boeing’s access to timber and his personal wealth were crucial in enabling him to underbid his competitors.[19]

In 1925, Boeing was still exclusively a manufacturer of military aircraft, but was ready to expand into commercial flight ventures, albeit ones still reliant on government contracts. Historian Paul G. Spitzer notes that the Boeing company’s rapid expansion in the decade after World War I was at first ignored by Seattle’s press and boosters, who tended to focus on business ventures based on resource extraction—including not only lumber but also salmon and apples. While Boeing was one of the city’s largest employers, “aviation, when reported in the Seattle newspapers, usually meant news from the East and Europe.” Boeing himself “almost never sought publicity for his firm.”[20]

The impetus for Boeing’s move into commercial flight was the passage of a new law, the Contract Air Mail Act. Prior to this, the United States Post Office handled all airmail service with its own fleet of airplanes beginning in 1918. Being an airmail pilot was, however, quite dangerous mainly because the airplane the post office used—the deHavilland DH-4—was heavy and clumsy to fly. Of the 40 pilots hired by the Post Office to run airmail routes, 31 had died in crashes by 1925. The Post Office was looking for a new airplane, and Boeing was able to provide such a plane: the Model 40A, which was fitted with a new air-cooled engine produced by the Pratt & Whitney company in place of the heavier water-cooled engines typically used in airplanes of the time.[21]

The Contract Air Mail Act, however, opened up airmail routes to private companies; the Boeing company could not only build airplanes to carry the mail, but also bid for the right to operate airmail routes themselves. It took some convincing from Boeing’s pilot friend, Eddie Hubbard, but Boeing bid on and won the contract to carry airmail on the San Francisco-to-Chicago route. The other bid came from an airline called Western Air Express (WAE), and although Boeing’s bid was considerably lower than WAE’s, it was nearly thrown out by postal officials who considered it unrealistically low. Boeing enlisted the aid of one of Washington’s U.S. Senators, Wesley Jones, to assure the Postmaster General that he was reliable, and he was required to post an $800,000 bond (approximately $10 million in 2010 dollars) as a guarantee of service. He made an agreement with Pratt & Whitney that it would provide another 25 engines for his company’s planes, and created his first subsidiary, Boeing Air Transport. The new company initiated airmail service on July 1, 1927.[22]

Meanwhile, aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s successful flight across the Atlantic in summer 1927 led to increased interest in airlines as a potential growth industry in the context of the booming stock market. In summer 1928, Boeing decided to pursue a stock offering to raise additional money for the company. The company added a new building to its main plant to house a growing engineering staff. The revenues generated by airmail service allowed Boeing to expand into building passenger aircraft; the first example of this was a modified Model 40A that had two extra seats installed to carry people along with its regular mail cargo. By 1928, thirty percent of the airmail and passenger traffic in the United States was carried by Boeing Air Transport.[23] In recognition of Boeing’s achievements and his company’s prowess, Seattle’s first municipal airport, constructed in 1928, was named Boeing Field in 1930. At the dedication of the airport’s terminal building, Boeing declared the day was “just about the happiest one of my life.”[24]

In 1929, Boeing merged the Boeing Airplane Company, Boeing Air Transport, the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, and a few other smaller companies and created the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, thereby integrating all of his aviation interests into a single holding company, which he hoped would enable him to remain competitive against the other airlines. This strategy would not last, however, as Boeing and other aviation companies came under scrutiny in Congress during the early years of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The roots of this scrutiny lay in the Air Mail Act of 1930 (also known as the McNary-Watres Act), passed with the intent of improving the efficiency of airmail transport and to encourage development of passenger service, which would enable airlines to expand their business. These airlines could make use of the infrastructure (such as airfields and navigational beacons) that the Post Office had already established. This law gave the postmaster general wide latitude in accepting bids for airmail routes and allowed him to favor larger carriers who had larger airplanes that could carry both passengers and mail.

Postmaster General Walter Brown believed there were too many small airlines trying to survive only on airmail and with little interest or capability to offer passenger service. Brown used his discretion under the new law to consolidate airmail contracts; this favored larger, well-financed carriers. One of Brown’s decisions, for example, was to refuse to award a mail contract to any airline that was not already operating night flights of 250 miles or longer. Boeing’s United Aircraft and Transport and two other companies were the postmaster’s preferred carriers and their smaller competitors were forced out. After Roosevelt took office in 1933, a reporter discovered that air contracts were not always awarded to the lowest bidder. He then discovered that Brown had met with the executives of the large airlines (American, TWA, Eastern, and United among them) to, in essence, divide up the nation’s airmail service among them.[25]

The reporter leaked his story to Senator Hugo Black of Alabama. Beginning in September 1933, Black, who went on to be one of the longest-serving Supreme Court justices in American history, chaired a Senate committee that investigated Brown’s meetings, derisively termed “spoils conferences.” Though Brown was not found to have done anything illegal, Black used his committee to cast suspicion on the large airlines, particularly Boeing’s, suggesting that they profited excessively from favorable government treatment. Black’s committee raised enough concerns for Roosevelt that he canceled all airmail contracts and handed the service over to the Army Air Corps in 1934. But against the advice of his own postmaster general, James Farley, Roosevelt put the Air Corps in charge almost immediately, before it had proper equipment and pilots trained to fly in winter weather. The result was that twelve pilots perished in crashes in the first five weeks of the Air Corps’ airmail service. Roosevelt decided to return airmail service to private contractors.[26]

This service, however, would be governed under a new Air Mail Act of 1934, authored by Hugo Black himself. This law had significant ramifications for Boeing’s business. It prohibited airplane manufacturers from owning airmail carriers or vice versa. Companies that held contracts prior to the passage of the act were ineligible for new contracts and executives who had participated in the “spoils conferences” were specifically banned from holding airmail contracts. The result for United Aircraft and Transport was that it split into three separate companies: Boeing Airplane (Boeing’s manufacturing interests west of the Mississippi River), United Air Lines (air transport of passengers and freight), and United Aircraft (Boeing’s manufacturing companies located east of the Mississippi). Boeing, embittered by the experience (especially during his testimony to Black’s committee) and having made no secret of his plan to retire by the age of 50, divested all of his holdings of Boeing stock and left the company for his Highlands mansion in 1934, at the age of 53.[27]

The now much smaller Boeing Airplane faced some hard years following the breakup of United Aircraft and Transport. With the company having dropped to third in aircraft manufacturing and losing money, Boeing’s new president, Claire Egtvedt, decided a bold stroke was necessary. The Army was interested in a long-range heavy bomber, so Egtvedt had the company design one. This prototype, named the XB-15, was unlike any other bomber made in the United States: it had four engines, a wingspan of nearly 150 feet, and weighed nearly 38,000 pounds when empty. The Army was impressed enough with this prototype that it ordered thirteen more of them. The bomber—later designated the B-17— was so large that the company needed to build a new plant to assemble it. With the entry of the United States into World War II, Boeing Airplane was called upon to produce 7,000 more B-17s over the course of the war. Boeing also designed and built another massive long-range bomber, first called the XB-29, then simply the B-29. Boeing Airplane produced over 2,700 B-29s. These two aircraft contributed significantly to the massive growth of the company during the war years. Boeing’s military contracts, by 1943, were valued at $1 billion (over $12 billion in 2010 dollars). Boeing had 50,000 employees in the Seattle area in 1944, which fueled another population boom; King County, which encompasses most of the Seattle metropolitan area, grew by 100,000 in two years during the war.[28]

William Boeing had never entirely left the timber business and remained involved in it until about 1954; he also became interested in real-estate development. In the late 1920s, he began purchasing land in northern Seattle and the area just north of the city’s boundary and overseeing plans to subdivide the land and offer sites for building new homes. His first endeavor, a development known as Blue Ridge, was completed just as the stock market crashed in October, 1929, and the home sites languished for several years afterwards. Boeing’s income was curtailed as he was no longer able to rely on income from stock dividends and rent for mining developments on property he owned elsewhere. In 1934, he decided to accept an offer from a real estate broker named Hugh Russell, who promised to find buyers for the Blue Ridge development homes in exchange for a commission. After Russell successfully marketed ten homes in the development, he was given “broad authority… to dispose of all of [Boeing’s] real estate north of Seattle.”[29]

Russell used his knowledge of the Seattle housing market to price home sites that would attract buyers. He also followed standard practices in the real estate industry by creating developments in which covenants were used to forbid the sale or rental of individual properties in the development to anyone who was not white.[30] While Boeing owned the land and supplied the working capital for developing and improving the various real estate projects, he preferred to be a silent partner. Russell’s name appeared in all the publicity surrounding the developments, while Boeing refrained from using his name as it “avoided bothersome inquiries at his office or home.” Boeing approved Russell’s budgets and generally exercised veto power over Russell’s decisions but otherwise remained in the background. With the ending of World War II, the postwar baby boom, and the increasing attractiveness of suburban developments (coupled with government incentives that lowered the cost of home purchases), the real estate projects prospered and Boeing made some $107,000 in profits from 1946 to 1948 (approximately $969,000 in 2010 dollars) from his suburban real estate ventures. Real estate represented approximately 10% of his assets.[31]

Social Status

From the time he arrived in Seattle in his twenties, Boeing seems to have been fully accepted as a member of the city’s largely Anglo-American elite. This was perhaps due in part to the fact that German-Americans in Seattle were a heavily assimilated ethnic group, with “no distinct neighborhoods,” although the city did have a German-language newspaper and various social and charitable German ethnic institutions.[32] Boeing’s inclusion in Seattle’s elite was doubtless also attributable to his wealth and schooling. He was a member of the University Club and the Rainier Club, two of the most exclusive clubs in the city, as well as belonging to prestigious social clubs in Portland, Tacoma, and Chicago. In 1909 he was elected a member of the Highlands, an exclusive private country-club development located just north of the Seattle city boundary. He paid for the construction there of a mansion designed by renowned local architect Charles Bebb which was completed in 1914. The home would remain Boeing’s residence for most of his adult life.

In a letter to his Yale classmates in 1914, he wrote that “My main hobby is shooting, and I never overlook an opportunity when it presents itself,” adding that he made a habit of traveling to British Columbia and Alaska every year to hunt and fish.[33] Boeing remained a bachelor until 1921, when he married Bertha Potter Paschall. Bertha Boeing was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, but like Boeing she had family roots further east: her mother, Alice Kershaw Potter, was the daughter of a wealthy Milwaukee grain merchant, while her father, Howard Cranston Potter, was descended from the Brown family of Brown Brothers, the New York City investment bank. Bertha Boeing had been previously married and brought to the marriage her two sons from a previous marriage, Nathaniel and Cranston. In 1922, William and Bertha had another son, William Boeing, Jr.[34] From 1927 onward Boeing was largely an absentee businessman, traveling frequently rather than being a year-round Seattle resident. He was an avid fan of horse racing and began breeding horses—many of which were nationally competitive—in the late 1930s. He traveled to keep up with the thoroughbred horse-racing circuit and also took multiple extended yacht trips.[35]

Though Boeing’s name is not mentioned alongside the better-known lumber barons of the area, such as Frederick Weyerhäuser, it was this economic sector that provided resources upon which Boeing could rely. In keeping with his interests in boating and fishing, Boeing had a new yacht (also named the Taconite) built in 1930 and enjoyed many trips on it, particularly off of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia coasts. Boeing also involved himself in local charities, particularly the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, which he supported during the Great Depression and to which he donated his Highlands home in 1942.[36]

In that same year, Boeing and his family moved to a 500-acre farm named Aldarra Farms in Fall City, Washington, a small community east of Seattle. Boeing took up an interest in animal husbandry and raised Hereford cattle, Black Angus cattle, and sheep there. Boeing also modernized the farm and built a grass dehydrating plant in order to provide the cattle pasture all year round, the only noncommercial dehydrating plant in the state. Boeing seemed quite content to play the role of a country squire, but never lost his desire to experiment and innovate.

In recognition of his contributions to aviation, particularly in manufacturing and air transport, Boeing was awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Medal in June 1934. This medal was established by Harry Guggenheim, an aviator, flight enthusiast, and son of the businessman and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim, and was awarded jointly (at the time) by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers. Boeing regarded it as one of the signature achievements of his long career in aviation, but turned to other interests in his retirement. While his estate was worth about $22 million ($176 million in 2010 dollars), at the time of his death, Boeing did not own a single share of Boeing stock. Though Boeing’s reputation as a businessman and entrepreneur is largely a result of his achievements in aircraft manufacturing, he nevertheless continued to participate in the more traditional trade- and lumber-based local economy.

Though no longer having any financial interest in the company he founded, Boeing maintained contact with his old business, serving as a consultant to the company during World War II. He was also present for the christening (by his wife) of the Dash-80, which eventually became the 707, the first of the Boeing Company’s famous line of jet airliners. Boeing remained active well into his retirement, but his health began to decline in 1954. While aboard the Taconite, on September 28, 1956—just three days before his 75th birthday—he suffered a heart attack and died there. His family scattered his ashes along the British Columbia coast, where he had spent so much time yachting. As a final honor, Boeing was, in 1966, inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio in recognition of his contributions to the development of aircraft and air transport.[37]


William E. Boeing established a company that remains iconic in American industry. Despite his company’s stature, Boeing carefully managed his public persona and did not reveal many details about his life. The life of the company Boeing founded, however, provides some insight into him. At its root, it was a simple passion for flight that pushed him to innovate. Boeing did not necessarily have a grander vision of the future of powered flight than did his contemporaries. What he did have was the ability to recognize opportunities when they presented themselves and the skill to leverage his considerable personal resources in pursuit of those opportunities. Boeing also knew how to choose people who shared his goals and who could best complement his own talents. These characteristics, coupled with a strong commitment to excellent engineering and design, laid the foundation for a company that, perhaps more than any other, became a lasting symbol of the strength of American manufacturing in the twentieth century.


[1] John Schultz and David Wilma, “Boeing, William Edward (1881–1956),”HistoryLink.org, (accessed Sep. 9, 2015); Boeing Company, “Biography of William E. Boeing,” (accessed Sep. 9, 2015).

[2] Jeremy W. Kilar, Germans in Michigan (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002), 7–8.

[3] Kilar, Germans in Michigan, 25–26.

[4] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing.”

[5] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing.”

[6] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing.”

[7] Bradford Brinton, comp., Decennial Record of the Class of 1904S., Yale University (Dixon, Ill.: Published for the class, 1914), 182. The “S” denotes Yale’s Sheffield School.

[8] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing.”

[9] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing”; Robert J. Serling, Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 2.

[10] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing”; Paul G. Spitzer, “Boeing as a Start-Up Company, 1915–1917,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 95.3 (Summer 2004): 140–148, here 140.

[11] Donald M. Pattillo, Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 9–10.

[12] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing”; Spitzer, “Boeing as a Start-Up Company,” 142.

[13] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Spitzer, “Boeing as a Start-Up Company,” 144; Polly Reed Myers, Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 10.

[14] Eve Dumovich, “The 1st… and the Best,” Frontiers, 46. Wong’s name is given in the Chinese form, with the surname first.

[15] Serling, Legend and Legacy, 3; Spitzer, “Boeing as a Start-Up Company,” 145.

[16] Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1900–1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991), 8–9, 21–22; Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 357.

[17] Serling, Legend and Legacy, 3; Myers,Capitalist Family Values, 11.

[18] Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing”; Serling, Legend and Legacy, 4; Peter M. Bowers, Boeing Aircraft since 1916 (London: Putnam, 1966), 46.

[19] Serling, Legend and Legacy, 5–6; Eugene Rodgers, Flying High: The Story of Boeing and the Rise of the Jetliner Industry (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996), 34.

[20] Paul G. Spitzer, “Seattle’s First Aviators and Their Claims to a New Province in the Sky,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 92.2 (Spring 2001): 71–80, 73, 78.

[21] Serling, Legend and Legacy, 9; F. Robert van der Linden, Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 29–32.

[22] van der Linden, Airlines and Air Mail, 33.

[23] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Serling, Legend and Legacy, 10; Rodgers, Flying High, 38.

[24] Myers, Capitalist Family Values, 32; Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, “Historic Boeing Field Hangar Building 5,” Historic Property Inventory Form, OAHP #17-03868.

[25] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Serling, Legend and Legacy, 23–24.

[26] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Serling, Legend and Legacy, 24–25.

[27] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Harold Mansfield, Vision: A Saga of the Sky (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pierce, 1956), 108; Serling, Legend and Legacy, 25–26.

[28] Serling, Legend and Legacy, 29, 33, 55, 62; T.M. Sell, Wings of Power: Boeing and the Politics of Growth in the Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 19.

[29] Boeing v. United States, 168 F. Supp. 762 (1958), 763–766. This case was a dispute over taxes whose outcome turned on whether or not Boeing had been actively involved in his real estate ventures or a passive investor; the court ruled that he had been an active participant.

[30]Innis Arden–A Restricted Residential Community,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project; Catherine Silva, “Racial Restrictive Covenants: Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants_report.htm (accessed Sep. 10, 2015).

[31] Boeing v. United States, 765–766.

[32] Dana Frank, Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919–1929 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 17; Peter Blecha, “FBI Arrests Martin George Dudel,” HistoryLink.org (accessed Sep. 9, 2015).

[33] Brinton, comp., Decennial Record of the Class of 1904S., 182.

[34] “Historic Point Cottage Nearing Completion of Renovation,” Greenwich Time, March 23, 2011; Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing”; Serling, Legend and Legacy, 5–6.

[35] Boeing v. United States, 763.

[36] American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, “History of Guggenheim Medal,” (accessed July 31, 2012); Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Rodgers, Flying High, 170; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing.”

[37] Schultz and Wilma, “Boeing”; Boeing Company, “William E. Boeing.”

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title William Edward Boeing
  • Coverage 1881-1956
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018