The History of Boeing in 15 Objects

A rummage through the airplane maker’s attic.

Early concept for the Boeing 727
Early concept for the Boeing 727

The airplane was still a novelty in 1916, when Bill Boeing flew his first, an open-cockpit seaplane he named Bluebill. Only two such airplanes were built (the other was named Mallard), but today his namesake, The Boeing Company, delivers an average of more than two aircraft per day. Boeing’s archives are proprietary, but the company granted photographer Chad Slattery rare access to celebrate its 100-year history. Some are classics; others are weird, wonderful airplanes that didn’t make it past the modeler’s shop. –The Editors

Subscribe to Air & Space Magazine Now

This story is a selection from the August issue of Air & Space magazine

Every Fortress Starts With Blueprints

You can recognize it even in this spare 1934 sketch. The multi-engine bomber drawn by Edward Wells foreshadowed the airplane that propelled Boeing into the first rank of aircraft manufacturers. Just three years after graduating from engineering school, Wells led the team that designed Boeing’s B-17 bomber. He went on to influence the design of every Boeing bomber from the B-17 and B-29 through the B-47 and B-52, and every jetliner through the 747.

Star of Screen and Sky

This 1956 model was an early concept for the Boeing 727, which quickly became an airline standard but ended up looking nothing like this design. The 727 was ultimately built with two engines on the rear fuselage and another on the tail. It was designed to operate on short hauls and shorter runways. It became a commercial icon, appearing in dozens of movies and TV shows, on album covers, and of course in hundreds of airports. It was the fastest selling airliner of its day.

For Every Hero, Two Disposable Sidekicks

This Configuration 724-16 model was part of Boeing’s 1957 submission for the Mach 3, long-range, supersonic WS-110A bomber competition. The monstrous design incorporated jettisonable outboard fuel tanks, each as big as a B-47 fuselage, to feed the era’s notoriously thirsty engines. When he first saw the model with its 42-inch wingspan, U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay barked, “This isn’t an airplane—this is a three-ship formation!” North American Aviation eventually won with the B-70 Valkyrie (which was canceled).

Arrow to the Heavens

Boeing entered the hypersonic fray in 1957 with a submission to the Air Force known internally as Model 814-1010. Twin Rocketdyne E-1 liquid-fuel rockets and X-279 turbojets would power the first stage: a 132-foot flyback launch vehicle (the display model is more than three feet long). Piggybacked to the second-stage rocket was the arrow-shaped DSII, which carried one pilot and one nuclear weapon. The concept eventually evolved into the X-20 Dyna-Soar spaceplane, but by 1963 there were cheaper Gemini capsules orbiting overhead and no compelling military mission in sight, so Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara canceled the X-20.

The Charm Offensive

Visitors who toured Boeing plants on Boeing’s 25th anniversary, in 1941, were given a small booklet: <em>25 Years of Aggressive Leadership</em>. Inside was a description of the “new-type B-17E Flying Fortress” manufacturing plant and a pocket labeled “For your Automobile,” holding this four- by seven-inch metal plate printed with an image of the bomber. Drivers could use the punched hole to attach the accessory to their car’s license plate.

Wasteful Wasp-Waister

In 1972 Boeing began studies to develop an airliner that would replace early jets like the 707 and Douglas DC-8. Engineers produced Model 767-611, featuring a supercritical wing, area-ruled fuselage, twin aisles for more passenger capacity, and a cruise speed of Mach .98. But by 1974, the cost of jet fuel had increased from 11¢ a gallon to $1.10, and airlines were clamoring for operational efficiencies, not speed. With its trio of gas-guzzling turbojets, the -611 concept was abandoned.

Sonic Bust, or Breaking the Cost Barrier

Sonic booms, fuel cost spikes, and ozone depletion were not political issues in 1963, when President John Kennedy promised to subsidize development of an American supersonic transport. Boeing began a program that ultimately employed thousands of people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but lasted only six years. Model 2707-200, an intermediate configuration mocked up in 1966, would have been longer than a football field, with wings that extended for takeoffs and retracted for efficient Mach 2.7 cruise. The Boeing SST had booked 112 orders from 26 airlines by 1971, when cost, technical, and environmental concerns led Congress to withdraw funding.

Ahead of Its Time, Behind Its Competition

By 1960 the Pentagon began planning to replace the Air Force F-105 and Navy F-4. The new jets needed the speed of a fighter, the payload of a bomber, and the range of a transport. Boeing submitted its swing-wing Model 818, which had some unusual features: TF-30 fully ducted turbofan engines, air inlet scoops atop the rear fuselage, and variable-thrust reversers that could be used in flight. The contest was eventually won by General Dynamics’ F-111 concept.

The Slowest Boeing

By 1944 Boeing recognized that after the war, there would be little demand for heavy bombers, so the company looked into consumer products. This automobile design (and another for a delivery truck) is attributed to Ed Wells, Boeing’s legendary chief engineer. Officials quickly realized they could not jump into a field where rivals like Ford had a 40-year head start, and turned efforts toward the KC-97 tanker and the then-radical B-47 jet bomber.

Close But No Cigar

Boeing’s 727 first flew in 1963, but after the company lost sales to the Douglas DC-9, it began studies of a shorter-haul aircraft. Engineers saved time by borrowing heavily from both the 707 and the 727. This 24-inch model, Configuration 240A, was made in 1965. Just two years later a very different 737 made its first flight­, with engines underneath the wings and horizontal stabilizer on the fuselage. More than 10,000 737s have been built; derivatives still roll off the production lines today.

707 x 2 =

Early 747 trade studies simply stacked one 707 fuselage atop another, yielding a double-deck jetliner. After heated disputes, engineers settled on an oval fuselage that was wide rather than tall, with two aisles instead of one. This undated model carried Boeing’s traditional color scheme, called “canary yellow” by marketing and “puke yellow” by engineers. Boeing chose the scheme deliberately: Nobody could accuse the company of favoring one airline’s hues over another’s.

Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease

Boeing’s 1979 patent application described the Model 733-606-12 as a “high-speed airplane…specifically designed for sustained supersonic cruise flight at approximately Mach number 2.5.” The company’s model shop made 1/100-scale variants in U.S. Air Force and NASA liveries. Distinctive features included area ruling, an arrowhead wing, and outboard airfoils that functioned as a horizontal stabilizer when moved together or as ailerons when deflected differentially. Boeing believed this 93-foot-long concept was adaptable for supercruise research, for military use as an interceptor or a reconnaissance platform, and for civilian use as a six-passenger business jet.

Airplane or Airfoil?

Debuting the Model 754-4V freighter concept in 1973, Boeing transcended its tube-and-wing heritage. The flat, wide fuselage effectively turned the entire airplane into a wing, which would provide lift at low airspeeds for flight from small airports. It could accommodate up to 20 standard-size shipping containers. Three 50,000-pound-thrust engines would provide sufficient takeoff thrust, but anticipating future stretched versions, the middle jet was offset to make room for a fourth. The program ended when Boeing realized cargo versions of the 747 would offer greater range and capacity.

Greater Thrust Meets Higher Power

Chaplain Nelsen’s work records are lost, but he was almost certainly stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California during the deadly years immediately after World War II, when pilots frequently died testing rocket planes and early turbojets like the Boeing B-47. This identification badge uses Boeing’s old “bug” logo, discarded by the company for all but a few select uses, with the elongated “G” in “Boeing” meant to evoke the view of an aircraft from above.

Not All That Glitters…

This gold-painted hardhat, presented to company president Bill Allen by Boeing workers after building the first 747, recalls company founder Bill Boeing’s start as a lumberyard owner. Allen launched the 747 program in 1966 with just 25 orders, from Pan Am; to break even, he needed 400. The gamble exposed the company to financial ruin, but ultimately it paid off: To date Boeing has sold more than 1,500 in several variants and continues to sell 747s.