The war to end all wars -- WWI -- had ended.
America was heading into the Roaring '20s.
Indeed, business was about to boom -- except for the fledgling flight industry. That idea, launched 15 years earlier in a brief takeoff in Kitty Hawk, N.C., was dangling.
A team of nearly 300 shipwrights, cabinetmakers and seamstresses working in a warehouse along Seattle's Duwamish River hustled to make ends meet. William Boeing had gathered the group over the prior few years to build floatplanes for the U.S. military. Boeing's crew would grow through the next decade to become the largest aviation operation in the world.
Yet for now they built furniture, speedboats and whatever else would earn a buck until airplanes outgrew their status as a barnstorming oddity.
"Wall Street would not invest in the airline business," said Robert van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics division of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum. "It was so new, so raw and so unproven that no one wanted to risk investment."
Boeing's view was longer. He recognized aviation's potential and saw the rate at which the world around him was changing.
Technology was presenting challenges so "new and unusual," he said, "that it behooves no one to dismiss any novel idea with the statement that it can't be done."
Boeing (1881-1956) had an advantage over competitors: money. The Detroit native quit Yale University in 1903 -- the year the Wright brothers took off -- to head for the Pacific Northwest. He then leveraged inherited timberland into a booming lumber firm.
Boeing also inherited a large share of mineral rights in Minnesota's iron ore-rich Mesabi range.
Combined, the assets hoisted him into the upper crust of Pacific Northwest society -- and in 1918 let him pay his plane-building crew out of pocket.
Boeing knew he needed men who understood the physics of flight. Before and during the war, Boeing had sought craftsmen able to meet the tight-tolerance demands of aviation manufacturing. Now he coaxed the University of Washington to start an aeronautical engineering course from which he could cherry-pick promising prospects.
"The bottom line is that he had invested a lot in bringing good people together," said Michael Lombardi, corporate historian with Boeing Co. "And he didn't want to lose those people."
Boeing's experience helped him. Many competitors began as engineers or pilots. In the post-Armistice Day fallout, dozens of aviation firms that supplied military aircraft during the war were failing.
Boeing had a better handle on how to make a company rise. He was still building watercraft, but was also winning more contracts to supply military aircraft. In the meantime, the company pioneered steel tube fuselages and the chairman watched the horizon.
Boeing's success extended to banking. He owned 75% of Pacific National Bank, the institution that bankrolled his company's startup. As the air industry hit...