Meet Bill Boeing, the granddaddy of Seattle’s tech scene | KUOW News and Information

Meet Bill Boeing, the granddaddy of Seattle’s tech scene

Oct 22, 2017

On any given weekday morning, thousands of young professionals flood the streets in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. Their identical black backpacks and swinging lanyards mark them as employees of the global retail behemoth Amazon.

South Lake Union epitomizes Seattle’s gleaming tech future. These people are representatives of Seattle’s new elite: highly educated, technically savvy and devoted to the Next Big Thing, be it software or online retail.

They’re part of the new local economy powered by global megastars Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft. Many are new to the Pacific Northwest. And most are too young to remember the time before tech, when Seattle was the Jet City. 

Who do you see creating and innovating in Seattle now? Let us know.

Seattle’s high tech workforce didn’t spring from thin air. The local tech industry owes its existence, in part, to a young man who came to the region more than a century ago.

His name was William Edward Boeing, Bill for short, and he founded a global corporation that paved the way for generations of Northwest entrepreneurs.                                                                    

Happy accident

Roanoke Park is a quiet spot just a couple of miles from the crackling energy of South Lake Union. A discreet plaque affixed to the side of a concrete bench is the only evidence of the park’s historic significance. 

In 1916 Boeing’s first airplane took its maiden flight just off shore. The seaplane, made of a wood skeleton covered by lacquered cloth, soared a grand total of 900 feet over Lake Union.

Bill Boeing was one of dozens of aviation-crazy young men who set out to build a better airplane in the early 20th century. But Boeing was one of only a few who managed to transform tinkering into a thriving business.

Boeing didn’t always dream of airplanes. He was born in Detroit in 1881. His father, Wilhelm, had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany with no money, but an entrepreneurial knack. Wilhelm made a small fortune in timber and mining, but he died of influenza when his son was just eight years old, leaving his money in trust for his widow and children.

Like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the young Boeing was an Ivy League drop out. After a couple of years of engineering studies at Yale University, Boeing asked his mother for his share of his father’s estate.

He arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers made their first sustained test flight. Boeing was 22 years old.

"He didn't get on well with his stepfather," says Boeing corporate historian Michael Lombardi. "He went out on his own at an early age, and came to the Pacific Northwest to pursue his own timber business."

Amazon lore has it that founder Jeff Bezos landed in Seattle by happy accident. Historical accounts vary, but Bill Boeing’s arrival in the region smacks of a similar lucky coincidence.

According to some accounts, his father owned land in Grays Harbor County, and that’s why he chose Washington state. Other histories say Bill Boeing chose the area by chance; America needed more lumber products, and Washington had vast forests ready to be cut down.

Whatever the impetus, Boeing relocated to Hoquiam and established a successful timber business. The area was good for lumbermen, but perhaps not so exciting for young, unmarried men with money to spend.

Boeing kept his timber business, but sought new opportunities in Seattle.    

The first Boeing airplane, the Bluebill, B&W Model 1, assembled and launched from Seattle's Lake Union
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives
Indulging passions

A century ago, Seattle was still jostling with Tacoma for star billing in the Pacific Northwest. Lumber, coal and fishing — extractive industries — had created a wealthy upper class, but the city remained a rugged blue-collar outpost that called to 20th century pioneers.

University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara says the city lured a particular breed of newcomers.

“You’re doing it because, first of all, you don’t have something strong enough to keep you in your hometown,” she says. “You may be coming into the game with resources, but you are willing to try something new with an inherent risk.”

That description fits Bill Boeing to a tee.

In 1910 he decided to travel to Los Angeles for the West Coast’s first-ever air show. He didn’t get an airplane ride until five years later, but he was smitten. By 1915, he and a friend, naval officer Conrad Westervelt, had both learned to fly.

“Bill Boeing was the typical renaissance man of that period,” says Boeing historian Michael Lombardi. “He liked cars. He liked boats. So it was really natural when he had the opportunity to see airplanes that he just fell in love.”

If you’re a rich man with few financial encumbrances, you’re free to indulge your passions. These days wealthy tech entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk invest in space travel; Boeing and Westervelt bought a flying machine and had it shipped up to Seattle.

“Bill Boeing thought it wasn’t the greatest airplane,” says historian Michael Lombardi. “He thought he could improve on it.”

Boeing employed a team of skilled seamstresses to sew fabric to the original wooden airplane skeletons. These women originally made sails for ships.
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives

Beyond the imagining

Boeing had studied engineering at Yale, but he wasn’t schooled in airplane design. He contacted the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, at the time the site of the nation’s only aeronautics program, to ask for help.

Boeing's first engineer, Wong Tsoo, recruited from M.I.T. to help design the first Boeing seaplane
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives

MIT sent a young Chinese national named Wong Tsoo to Seattle. He became the first of tens of thousands of engineers who’ve worked for the Boeing company over the last century.

Early airplanes were made of wood, and Boeing the timberman had a ready supply. He needed people to craft the raw material into airplanes, so he bought a Duwamish River shipyard and converted the shipwrights into airplane makers.

A squadron of skilled seamstresses sewed lacquered fabric over the wooden airplane skeletons, and Boeing hired elite rowing shell fabricator, George Pocock, and his brother to design light weight pontoons. There were no airfields, and most airplanes took off and landed on the water.

Boeing wasn't the only person invested in airplane construction at that time. But he had resources, timing and vision on his side.

“The idea of air travel becoming something that people do on a regular basis was so beyond the imagining of the America of 1916 — and he saw that future," O’Mara says.

Once Boeing had an airplane design that could fly farther than a few hundred feet, he contracted with the military to supply airplanes for the Great War.

After the Armistice, his small company almost went bankrupt, but Boeing kept it aloft manufacturing everything from furniture to vessels called Sea Sleds, crude precursors to modern day catamarans.

Boeing's first factory, the Red Barn, on the shores of Seattle's Duwamish River. The Red Barn has been renovated and installed in the Museum of Flight
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives

Finally, a shrewd test pilot pointed out that Boeing could use his airplanes to deliver mail to far-flung Northwest locales. It was a potential source of new income, so Boeing agreed.

By 1929, Boeing’s company had morphed from a single-purpose manufacturing firm to a multi-armed conglomerate called the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. Boeing manufactured airplanes, but he also made the airplane engines and propellers. He founded an airline that flew Boeing airplanes, and he had an exclusive contract with the U.S. Postmaster General to fly mail across the northwestern U.S. and into Canada and Alaska.

Despite the global economic depression, the airline industry was thriving.

Five years later, Boeing’s empire came crashing down. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s new administration cancelled the mail delivery contracts inked during the Hoover era. Congress charged Boeing and three other aviation giants with monopoly business practices.

Although Bill Boeing was outraged by the charges of profiteering and collusion, he agreed to testify before a Senate committee. Ultimately, his corporation was dismantled into three smaller units: United Technologies, now based in Connecticut with a focus on aerospace engineering and technology, United Airlines, still in business, and the Boeing Airplane Company, headquartered in Seattle.

Boeing was bitter about the outcome, and he sold his stock and took early retirement. Except for a consultancy during World War II, he never again worked for the company that still bears his name.

An early crew of female factory workers.
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives

Entwined

Drive south from Bellevue on I-405 and you can’t miss Boeing’s Renton plant. A giant "12" flag affixed to the east wall just below the Boeing logo announces to passersby support for the Seattle Seahawks football team.

The Renton facility is comprised of several factories, more than a million square feet in all, that manufacture the company’s top-selling 737 commercial jets. These mid-sized passenger planes are Boeing’s meat and potatoes, the best-selling commercial planes in the world. Workers finish 47 of them every month now, but Boeing plans to up production.

A flotilla of B-17 bombers, the Flying Fortresses, lined up on the runway at Plant 2, Boeing Field
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives

The original Renton plant was built in 1940 to manufacture military aircraft, including B-29 bombers. By the 1950s, the company marched into commercial airplane production with the rollout of the 707 passenger jet. This airplane wasn’t the company’s first jet, but its debut helped Boeing break into the modern commercial air market. It also helped brand Seattle as the Jet City.

“Oh, that’s a racy term,” says Paul Harvey, a retired commercial pilot who is now a docent at Seattle’s Museum of Flight near Boeing Field. “When you said Jet City, hoo-ee, that was stylin’, that was avant garde!”

Boeing basketball players, circa 1955
Credit Flickr Photo/Seattle Municipal Archives (CC BY 2.0)/https://flic.kr/p/53caof

Harvey was part of a generation of Seattleites who “grew up Boeing.” His father was a Boeing engineer, one of thousands who came to Seattle to work for the company during World War II. The elder Harvey worked on the B-17 bomber, then on the B-29, the airplane that dropped the hydrogen bombs on Japan.

Harvey says he grew up in a suburban cul-de-sac dominated by Boeing families.

“Our church, half the members were Boeing engineers,” he says. “There were no attorneys there, no doctors. They were all Boeing people.”

In the mid-20th century, Seattle’s identity was completely entwined with that of Boeing, UW historian O’Mara says.

“Some of the images I love to show in my classes are those wonderful publicity shots that Boeing always did of its new aircraft flying in front of Mt. Rainier — this strong association the Boeing leadership made between Seattle, the Pacific Northwest and all their products," she says.

Seattle was the quintessential company town. Boeing was its biggest employer; by 1969, 103,00 people worked for the airplane maker, including 15,000 engineers. That’s more than twice the number of Amazon’s Seattle-area workforce.

“It wasn’t just that it was the biggest employer,” O’Mara says. “It employed everyone from white collar engineers and managers to people working on the assembly line. It was a company that brought economic opportunity to a huge swath of people, that had these economic impacts across Seattle, and it shaped its sensibility.”

In 1971, though, Congress cancelled the American supersonic transport project, the SST. Virtually overnight, Boeing’s workforce plummeted to 35,000.

Ultimately, the company’s fortunes revived, but its official association with Seattle petered out. In 1997, Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas; in 2001 it moved its headquarters to Chicago. Many old-timers in and out of the company were horrified with what felt like an ugly divorce.

Boeing hires its first female engineer, Helen Holcombe, in 1917
Credit photo courtesy Boeing Historical Archives
Idealism and pragmatism

By then, though, Seattle was a very different city from the place that had beckoned to Bill Boeing a century before. Native sons Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved their fledgling software company back from the Southwest, and Howard Schultz purchased a coffee company with plans to take it global. And a recording company called Sub Pop was marketing something called “the Seattle Sound” to music lovers around the world. 

Boeing was still the region’s largest employer, but no longer the first thing people associated with Seattle. Still, O’Mara can trace a line from aviation entrepreneur Bill Boeing to Seattle’s contemporary booming tech sector.

“Boeing was a tech startup,” she says. “Bill Boeing was very similar to a lot of the high tech entrepreneurs, a kind of progressive-era Elon Musk. There’s a mix of idealism and pragmatism in these people who create the companies that become era-defining.”

Model airplanes are stored at the Boeing Historical Archives on Friday, September 15, 2017, in Bellevue.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Boeing historian Lombardi says Seattle wouldn't be an economic powerhouse without Bill Boeing.

“When you look today at some of the pioneers of modern businesses in the Seattle area, I think Bill Boeing really set that tone," Lombardi says. "When people say ‘what’s in the water in Seattle?’ I think it’s Bill Boeing, right?”

Scurrying through the South Lake Union streets, lanyards flapping in the breeze, the 21st century computer engineers and programmers of Amazon don’t have time to ponder Bill Boeing’s legacy. They’re too busy dreaming about the Next Big Thing.

If Bill Boeing was still alive, he’d probably be doing the exact same thing.