Boeing’s origin dates to 1916 when the American timber merchant William E. Boeing founded Aero Products Company shortly after he and U.S. Navy officer Conrad Westervelt developed a single-engine, two-seat seaplane, the B&W. Renamed Boeing Airplane Company in 1917, the enterprise built “flying boats” for the Navy during World War I, and in the 1920s and ’30s it successfully sold its trainers, pursuit planes, observation craft, torpedo planes, and patrol bombers to the U.S. military. In the late 1920s Boeing Airplane expanded into airmail services, and in 1928 William Boeing formed Boeing Airplane & Transport Corporation to encompass both manufacturing and airline operations. The next year the company was renamed United Aircraft and Transport Corporation and acquired several aircraft makers, among them Chance Vought, Avion (which became Northrop Aircraft), Stearman Aircraft, Sikorsky Aviation, engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, and aircraft and propeller maker Hamilton Metalplane. In 1931 it combined four smaller airlines under its ownership into United Airlines. In 1934, under new U.S. antitrust legislation (the Air Mail Act of 1934), aircraft manufacture was required to be divorced from air transport, and a newly incorporated Boeing Airplane Company became one of the three companies to emerge from the dissolution of United Aircraft and Transport. The other two were United Aircraft Corporation (now United Technologies Corporation) and United Airlines.
Prior to and during World War II, Boeing Airplane Company built several famous commercial aircraft, such as the Model 247 twin-engine monoplane, the Model 314 flying boat (one of Pan American’s Clipper-class aircraft), and the Model 307 Stratoliner, the first airliner with a pressurized cabin. Boeing’s legendary bombers, the B-17 Flying Fortress (first flown in 1935) and the B-29 Superfortress (1942), played key roles in the Allied war effort in World War II. In the postwar years Boeing continued its military commitments with the six-engine B-47 Stratojet (1947) and eight-engine B-52 Stratofortress (1952) jet bombers.
While Boeing was successfully selling military aircraft, its commercial products lagged behind those of rivals Douglas and Lockheed. To compete in the fierce and expanding world market after World War II, the company decided to develop an airliner, powered by turbojets, with enough range to cross the North Atlantic. After initial hesitation from airlines (most of which had committed to popular and less-expensive propeller-driven airliners from rival firms), but buttressed by sales to the U.S. Air Force in the form of an aerial tanker (the KC-135 Stratotanker), the four-engine plane, designated the 707, went into commercial service in 1958 on a Pan American transatlantic route. The aircraft quickly won over passengers with its shorter flight time and smoother ride and subsequently helped to revolutionize air travel. The 707 was followed by the 727 trijet and 737 twinjet, which entered service in 1964 and 1968, respectively. The 737 was developed into a modern family of planes, and by the end of the 20th century it had become the world’s best-selling commercial aircraft. The high development costs of the 747 “Jumbo Jet,” the world’s first wide-body jetliner, almost forced Boeing into bankruptcy, but, when the 400-seat aircraft went into service in 1970, it allowed airlines to offer affordable long-range air travel for the general public and gave Boeing a monopoly position in this market segment.
In 1960 Boeing purchased Vertol Corporation, then the world’s largest independent manufacturer of helicopters. As Boeing Helicopters, the unit focused on tandem-rotor helicopters and was responsible for the development of the CH-47 Chinook and CH-46 Sea Knight military transport helicopters (first flown in 1961 and 1962, respectively). Boeing’s work on missiles, which began in 1945, resulted in such weapons as the silo-launched Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (deployed in 1962) and the AGM-86B/C air-launched cruise missile (deployed in 1982).
In the space sector during the 1960s and ’70s, Boeing built the Lunar Orbiters, NASA’s first spacecraft to orbit the Moon (1966–67), and the Mariner 10 space probe, which took the first close-up pictures of the surface of Mercury (1974–75). It also designed and built the first stage of the Saturn V rockets that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon and the battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicles used in the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. In 1976 it entered the upper-stage-rocket arena when it was selected to develop the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), a two-stage payload delivery vehicle that can be taken into space by either a space shuttle or a launcher such as the Titan. In 1993 NASA selected Boeing as the prime contractor for the ISS, and two years later the company became responsible for the integration and verification of ISS systems and the design, analysis, manufacture, verification, and delivery of the American components of the station.
In the 1960s and ’70s Boeing also diversified into areas such as marine craft (hydrofoils), transit systems, energy production, and agriculture but later refocused on aerospace. In 1981 the company first flew its twin-engine, wide-body Boeing 767, followed by its twin-engine, single-aisle 757 the next year. By featuring a common flight deck for the two aircraft, pilots who trained and qualified on one plane could also fly the other, thus reducing cost and increasing productivity for carriers. This concept of commonality also applied to more than 40 percent of all 757-767 parts. For its next jetliner, the twin-engine, wide-body 777, Boeing involved several key airlines in the development process in order to ensure that market needs and customer preferences were satisfied. Advances in computers and computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software allowed Boeing to develop the 777 entirely on computers without having to build a physical mock-up of the airplane. The first flight took place in 1994.
In 1991 the U.S. Air Force chose a design offered by a consortium comprising Lockheed (later Lockheed Martin), Boeing, and General Dynamics for a twin-engine advanced tactical fighter with stealth features; the aircraft was named the F-22 Raptor and was first flown in 1997. In 1996 Boeing and Lockheed Martin received U.S. defense contracts to build competitive technology demonstrators for the Joint Strike Fighter, intended as an affordable, next-generation, multirole fighter for the armed services of the United States and Britain. In 1995 Boeing joined Ukrainian, Russian, and Anglo-Norwegian partners to form Sea Launch, a commercial launch services company that sent satellites into geostationary orbit from a floating platform at an equatorial site in the Pacific Ocean. Commercial launches began in 1999. In 2000 Boeing acquired the satellite business of Hughes Electronics.
In 2003 Boeing began taking orders for the 787 Dreamliner, a mid-range jet with speeds (Mach 0.85) that would match the fastest wide-body long-range planes but with vastly improved fuel efficiency, thanks to new high-bypass turbofan engines built by Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce and to a radically innovative body design. Roughly half of the primary structure of the 787, including the fuselage section and the wings, is to be made of carbon-fibre and plastic composite materials, lighter than the aluminum alloys used in most aircraft. Many airlines, faced with rising fuel costs, saw the 787 as key to upgrading their fleets in the following decade and ordered hundreds of the new planes. Originally scheduled to be delivered for commercial service starting in 2008, the 787 was beset with several production problems, not the least of which was failure of the crucial fuselage section in stress tests. Consequently Boeing was forced to postpone initial delivery to 2011.