Annals of Photography: The Boeing Company (1920-1933), Part 2

  • By Don Fels
  • Posted 3/21/2024
  • Essay 22939
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Seattle visual artist, writer, and researcher Don Fels was loaned a trove of historical photographs depicting airplane building at The Boeing Company in the 1920s and early 1930s. The photographs – almost none of which has been seen publicly – once belonged to company founder William E. Boeing. They were passed along to Fels ( by Boeing's granddaughter, along with permission to scan and publish them. Fels, who after living with the photographs for a year, returned the collection to the family, has written a book-length manuscript called Seeing Boeing to accompany the photographs and provided an abridged version for publication on HistoryLink. Of the photographs, Fels writes, "My essay examines what they have to show us about the differences of the company then and now, and why looking back to look forward makes a great deal of sense." In Part 1, Fels sorts through 27 volumes containing nearly 1,500 8x10 photographs. 

Essential Workers

Though the planes that were photographed were all made by hand, by people with their own feelings and thoughts, the planes show no signs of the handmade. The photographs present the airplanes as engineered objects that came into existence to perform very specialized tasks. Their function was to fly, to take people up in flight and down again without injury.

Shot in an "industrial" fashion, the photographs present nothing but hanging outerwear connecting people and the airplanes. The photographs picture the objects produced as machines or essential parts of them, as if they were themselves made by machines. This was not the case then, but has now come to pass. Computers and computer-aided machines are very much producing airplanes, but the photographs of the 1920s only suggest "progress" itself, not yet the "numeric machines" as they were then called, that would eventually greatly augment, and/or replace, the skilled workforce.

The photographs depict a time when neither those who made the airplanes, nor William E. Boeing himself, were unnecessary or redundant, or made so. Though they are not pictured in them, the photographs, if they are about anything, are about how the builders grew and multiplied the aircraft. We know but forget that the word "manufacture" reflects the relationship between those who make the objects and their production by hand.

The Russian Revolution dates from exactly the time of the creation of the Boeing Airplane Company. The Marxists took the prescient words of Karl Marx seriously enough to attempt a wholesale restructuring of the relationship between workers and their production. Many thousands of miles apart, the two events reflected very different and disconnected points of view about labor. At the time distance mattered a good deal to the spread of ideas, though nevertheless radical thoughts arrived in the Pacific Northwest in short enough order.

The existence of the Wobblies, aka the Workers of the World, had great effect on timber production, and ultimately on airplane production. Cutting down trees was horrifically dangerous work, and the timbermen wanted protections and job guarantees. Timber harvesting is still ranked as the most dangerous work a person can do, because trees are not industrial components. Trees grow in response to any number of variables that can propel them as they come down in ways predictable and not.

The tree cutters wanted medical help when needed and they wanted to be treated like professionals, not the itinerate outsiders that in fact many often were forced to become. They went on strike. There were mass incidents around Seattle involving police, strikers, and death. As a result of the Wobblies work stoppages, soldiers were stationed in the forests to guarantee sufficient spruce timber could be shipped to airplane manufacturers at the outbreak of World War I. As the availability of spruce became a federally regulated commodity, Mr. Boeing was no longer allowed to use spruce from his own forests, but had to rely, as did the other manufacturers, on his government allotment.

Making Connections

Never have only radical concepts crossed continents. Ideas have always traveled across space and time. But the manufacture of airplanes and their subsequent widespread use has dramatically and irrevocably changed how people, their ideas, and things move around the globe. When I first looked at the photographs in the Boeing volumes, I was struck by how small and even fragile the airplanes appeared. From the perspective of hindsight, we know that these first planes made possible the production of the large jets that now speed us everywhere. But at first look that connection seems almost hypothetical.

Yet it is connection itself that these photographs tell us most about. The connection of the workers and engineers and Mr. Boeing was essential to the creation of the airplanes – and the connection of the planes essential to the creation of the world that we all now occupy. We can and do jet all over the place. All of us, no matter how many flights we might take in a year, or even in a week, know that we could take flights to most anywhere at most anytime. Our ability to imagine world geography, or more specifically our place in a personal geography, is now based on our presumed capacity to fly there.

Connectivity is a term from the world of computers, but it was put into practice by airplanes. We can go wherever we might wish, if we have the time, means and a nearby airport from which to do so. This is the truly radical revolution that began in 1917 and stayed with us. The Futurists, Italian poets and painters, understood that the airplane would allow for speed of transport and that speed, and those multitudes of connections would change the world. Airplanes were featured repeatedly in their artworks, at least until their attachment to early flying cut short many of their lives in World War I.

The Futurists consciously sought the outsider status from which the timber cutters recoiled. Both the Wobblies and the Futurists produced manifesti at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1917, nationally there were 150,000 members of the IWW, at the same time the Futurists numbered in the hundreds. Both groups advocated class warfare, direct action, and widespread disruption. While the Futurists, goaded on by their flamboyant and proto-fascist founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, were driven by speed, symbols, and highly symbolic acts, the Wobblies were deeply committed to the establishment of fair treatment in their work. The Wobblies, besides fighting industrial leaders themselves, were much involved in fighting "organized labor," specifically the American Federation of Labor, a "craft union" from which the IWW members were for the most part excluded. Since the photographs tell us precious little about the craft-persons who painstakingly assembled the planes, perhaps that omission tells us a good deal.

The planes stand front and center, even when only visible in sections. Because the film-stock required long exposures which couldn’t capture movement clearly, we get very little visual evidence of the speed beloved by the Futurists. The question of speed itself has remained at the forefront of the battles that Boeing has fought – in wars, in labor negotiations, in the development of the capacity of their airplanes, and in the failed SST project.

Aerodynamic Beauties

In photographs taken outside, we see a few planes on runways. Parked alongside are Model Ts, another astounding product of the new century. As distinctly opposed to the expensive new-fangled airplanes, the new-fangled Fords were created to be affordable. Visually, the cars strongly harken back to the nineteenth century and carriages, even if they were horse-less. Rigid and boxy, they appear upright and static, even when moving. Yet the planes, even parked, look entirely as if they could and should be flying. Appearing nothing like the automobiles, they seem ready to take off and climb into the unknown.

Unlike the "Tin Lizzy," airplanes were as aerodynamic as the manufacturers could make them, and surely much of their physical beauty comes from the shape and forms that resulted. Of course, nature invented the idea of aero-dynamism, not airplane builders. The word itself comes from Newton, who coined it early in the eighteenth century when describing his theory of wind resistance. The nature of aerodynamics demands a necessary slimming down of the extraneous, allowing flight with the least friction. We find airplanes beautiful because like birds, they conform to natural laws and as creatures we recognize the primacy of those laws as well. Aesthetics are not simply arbitrary philosophical rules, but an element of how we apprehend and fit ourselves conceptually into the world. Airplanes seem beautiful because oddly enough, they feel like distant cousins. We accept that they are related to natural laws, as are we.

Artists respond to aesthetics because in one way or the other, they deal with beauty. Airplane manufacturers don’t necessarily make "aesthetic" decisions for the creation of beauty, but they do spend enormous effort in making airplanes aerodynamic. Marinetti was quite right in equating flight with powerful beauty. But the fascination with flight resides in our genetic structure, not in a particular art movement.

The myth of Daedalus is very much still with us because it speaks to the essential truth that we are not flying creatures, and that to attempt flying we are doing the unnatural. Early airplanes deeply touched people. Hundreds of thousands came out to airshows to see planes fly, long before the average person could go aloft. The spectators knew very well that it was crazy to expect people to fly, and in fact it is has been argued that the huge crowds came to see disaster strike. A daredevil pilot, falling to the earth like Icarus, confirmed the essential "truth" that flying was against nature. When early pilots crashed at airshows, the throngs rushed in to tear pieces of the flight suit off the dead man. They took those pieces of cloth home as relics. Police were posted to keep the crowd from storming the field, but to little use. The onlookers understood they were seeing violent and important history unfold. They wanted a piece of it.

Looking at the photographs of the early Boeing airplanes, we’re seeing the evolutionary biology of airplanes. Early airplane designers themselves looked deeply at birds and insects, trying to understand what kept them aloft. When we parse these photographs, we see right into that relationship. The logic and development of the flying machines delivers much of the "organic" pull of the pictures.

Because the early planes are made of such common materials, looking at the images, we feel we should be able to understand how they are put together and how they fly. It all seems simple enough: wooden and then metal skeletons, wire control systems, covered with lightweight but strong fabric covering – often silk, which wonderfully has both attributes at once, as has been known since antiquity. But the looking tells us very little about how they stay aloft. The photographs tell us everything, and nothing.

The photographs still exist, but almost all the original airplanes are gone. The photographs stop time, literally and metaphorically, as if they were flags waving into an unknown future. The photographs fly into the present in a way that the planes could not. The photographers must have hoped that the photographs would last.

From Wood to Metal

The period of the 1920s has been called the golden age of the company, a heady time of constant experiment and continuous innovation. In a real sense the planes shown in the photographs were transitional models. Did those designing and building the planes think of them as ephemeral objects, despite their being au courant flying machines? Did they expect them to survive, or even think about their longevity?

Mr. Boeing’s personal entrepreneurial history, and thus the early history of the company that bears his name, displays the same evolving trajectory. He began with the world-class Pacific Northwest first-growth timber. He came to understood how and why the local Native peoples had long used cedar and spruce for their watercraft. He purchased a shipyard for the purposes of making ocean-going yachts from wood, which he could supply from his forests. A sudden interest in flying and then flying machines overlapped with his shipbuilding operations. He learned to fly in Los Angeles, bought a plane and flew it to Seattle. Studying the plane, he felt he could do better. Certainly, the rest is history.

Mr. Boeing facilitated the necessary transfer of technologies, bringing the wood craftsmen he already employed from boat-making to airplane-making. The buoyant wooden floats are beautiful amalgamations of the nautical and the aeronautical. When things slowed down precipitously for the company after the World War I surge in orders dried up, Boeing had his men build sleek speedboats, called Sea-Sleds, which he imagined well-to-do persons would buy for pleasure cruising. Though they were handsome boats, there was very little call for them. That is until Prohibition, when rum-running from wet Western Canada down to dry Washington created a strong demand. This market-driven success must have pleased Mr. Boeing, a believer I’m told, in social drinking who also of course wanted to sell his boats.

Later, as Boeing transitioned into building airplanes from metal, it no longer relied on the nearby forests for aircraft structural members. Lightweight, strong, and impervious to rust, aluminum fit the bill. However, its production requires copious amounts of electricity. Columbia River dams assure the cheapest electric power in the country, which allowed the federal government to be sure that national security concerns would be anticipated and met. Boeing bombers could be sheathed in aluminum at a reasonable, albeit federally subsidized, price.

Though Boeing airplane construction was established around the skills of wooden-boat builders, and the requisite wood was easily and inexpensively available to the Seattle-based company, both were totally abandoned. Wood was removed from the Boeing plants, which were then completely re-structured to accommodate aluminum manufacture. Since aluminum production depended on hydroelectric power, unintended consequences drastically and irrevocably then altered the Northwest landscape. The Columbia River was dammed many times, starting with Grand Coulee, to provide increased power generation, 50 percent of which went to the manufacture of aluminum.

The first Boeing manufacturing facility in the former Heath Shipyard was on the Duwamish River, an area that then became the industrial heart of Seattle. The Boeing No. 2 plant, the first purpose-built Boeing Airplane Company plant, was built a short distance away on what had by then (1936) been renamed the Duwamish Waterway. The Boeing Renton facility, still very much a major Boeing plant, is on Lake Washington.

At the time of the Boeing No. 1 plant (1916), the Duwamish meandered a great deal. We are offered aerial views of the plant and of the undulating river in the collected photographs. The aerial views in the volumes are the only ones that bear the names of the photographers, likely because shooting photographs from moving airplanes was still difficult, dangerous work in the 1920s. The aerial photographs give us movement and speed, mainly because they do not have the sharp focus of the plant photographs taken with the aid of a tripod.

Mr. Boeing left the company in 1934, eighteen years after founding it. The change to aluminum plane production came at the very end of his time there. The 247, the first metal-clad Boeing plane, premiered in 1933. It was featured in a very popular exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair of that year. From the time of metal planes, the toxicity of the materials used to build Boeing aircraft, and dumped into the Duwamish, increased exponentially. Twenty years after the opening of the first Boeing plant on the Duwamish River and two years after Mr. Boeing left the company, Boeing opened its No. 2 plant upriver. The Duwamish Waterway is now a Federal Super-Fund Site due to the heavy metals lining its bottom. The major contributor to the Duwamish pollution, Boeing was not however alone – untreated sewage brought poison as well. Run-off carrying pesticides is still a big problem.

Once Boeing decided to end wooden plane production, it needed a new facility in which to fabricate the all-metal airplanes. Building airplanes out of metal involved a very different process from than used to produce the wooden and cloth planes. Inherently, metal construction also involved a greater level of toxicity.

Seen from above, the waterway looks much like the transportation link it became. The river’s straightening was begun in 1913 by RH Thomson, like William Boeing, a self-taught engineer who was intent on making the city more suited to manufacture and trade. His actions had the intended result, and the Boeing Company benefitted enormously from being able to move its large in-process manufactured airplanes along the channeled waterway.

The components of the early Boeing planes required little electric energy to produce. Machines were belt driven from a centrally powered mechanism. As can be seen in the photographs, the plants were lit by daylight from large glass windows. The natural light is responsible for the very satisfying tones in the photographs, and for the problem of requiring slow film speeds.

Production of aluminum for warplanes sealed the fate of the free-flowing Columbia River. From the company’s beginnings, as the photographs show, war was an extremely important factor in the success of the company. Early on, it was the only consistent market for planes. Unlike the Krupps and other German industrialists, neither Mr. Boeing nor his company were war profiteers. But without strong and steady support from government contracts, the company could not have stayed afloat. Still today Boeing is the single largest positive contributor to the American balance of trade, though the cascading debacles of recent years may well change that.

From Man to Machine

While William Boeing still ran the company there was already talk of numeric machines handling some of the airplane building tasks. Henry Ford, inventor and perfecter of the assembly line, tried to use his method of automation to build airplanes by reducing the number of skilled workers. He failed miserably. This wasn’t lost on The Boeing Company, which thrived. But skilled workers are very expensive, and in the highly competitive world of making airplanes, Boeing wanted to reduce their numbers, and their cost.

Computers and computer-aided machines seemed the answer. It is widely forgotten that the history of Seattle and technology, now pretty much taken for granted, is a story that began with Boeing. A plethora of large ungainly mainframe computers were running at Boeing long before Bill Gates brought his personal-scaled computers to Seattle. But there is little doubt that though Gates was born in Seattle, he returned there to start his company because considerable computer engineering knowledge and talent already existed there. As his Microsoft Company grew and prospered, it attracted many more computer engineers to the city. Jeff Bezos brought his Amazon idea to Seattle because he knew it could be engineered there.

Time will tell if airplanes can be designed, built, and flown successfully without a quorum of skilled human helpers standing by. The photographs in the 27 volumes depict a time when humans were entirely key, even if nearly invisible. Visible or not, human beings are still essential to flying airplanes.

The pilots of a century ago dared fate. It appears that the computer is now daring the pilot and the rest of us as well. How this will end, we can’t know. The photographs show us a time that increasingly seems very long ago. The distinct value of the photographs resides in the distance they traverse. Ironically the airplane is the technology par excellence for erasing distance. We get on the plane in Chicago and exit in Paris.

William Boeing could have imagined having machines build his airplanes, and perhaps also flying them. But it is an open question what he would have thought about that eventuality. He sought to produce a machine that would not fail, and his company proved sustainable. The story of Icarus remains a potent cautionary tale. Daedalus had the know-how to build wings to take him and his son aloft. But Icarus, the next generation, overreached his capacity, killing himself and destroying the heart and soul of his father. 

The twenty-seventh volume holds photographs from the last years of the 1920s. On nearly the last page is a double spread of two photographs providing a wide-angle look inside the "welding and brazing shop." The panoramas are noteworthy for their singularity – the others are single photographs. At the end of the volume, and of the entire collection, the two hinged photos leave us in the hands of many Boeing employees. A few of these men, as in the earlier photographs, are moving too fast to be seen clearly, but many are in focus, and all are attaching metal rod. Machine-driven assembly began decades ago, the first step toward automation at the plants. But in 1929, these connections were still being made with both hands. Thirty-eight men are seen in the photograph, each at work adhering one part to another.

Today the factory floor at Boeing bears very little resemblance to the one pictured in the double photograph. Machines now do that work. The machines are likely connected to computers, allowing for consistent, fail-safe welds made to tolerances unheard of 80 years ago. The work can be done faster, more reliably, and certainly less expensively by machines.

Disassembling Boeing 

These gate-folded photographs close the book, but not the discussion of what has been lost and what gained in the manufacture of airplanes, when machines replace men and when aeronautical engineers are being replaced by corporate managers. Can computers provide the level of quality of experienced human designers and builders?

We will continue to fly above the earth in enclosed transports. And others will conceive of and organize their construction. How people and the aircraft will intertwine in the future is not at all black and white. Nor is the future of The Boeing Company itself knowable. Having merged with the failing McDonell Douglas Aircraft Company to procure more federal defense work, the culture on the manufacturing floor was said to have changed almost immediately. The "joke" in Seattle was that the L.A company bought the Seattle company with Boeing’s money, installing its men to lead the corporate structure.

Boeing built the world’s finest airplanes for most of the twentieth century and its reputation, which William Boeing understood was its biggest asset, was exceedingly well crafted and deserved. But with the merger, followed by ever-increased outsourcing and dependence on computer-driven design and fabrication, the planes and the company that produced them began to evidence dangerous stress. Longtime workers in the Seattle Boeing plants complained, and not just privately, about what was being lost. Some declared outright that the planes were no longer safe.

The photographs from a century ago show obsessive attention to detail. The plaque with Mr. Boeing’s commitment to his workers, the ones charged with paying out the requisite attention, still adorns the entrance to the Renton plant. But after the merger, the leadership team moved to Chicago. It was widely believed that they did so to avoid direct contact with the unions representing Boeing workers, and with the airplane builders themselves.

The Boeing story was all a piece – materials, workers, leadership existed at and were derived from the same time and place. They were strongly connected by their ties, by their overlapping skills, and common goal. This produced great pride in what they were doing, and in their product. The words on the Boeing entrance plaque revolve around "we" and "our." Ironically, the advent of the Boeing jet made possible the global production of the newer planes, in sections flown in for assembly in Seattle. Dispersal of production around the world may have looked wonderful on paper. It has turned out quite differently. The company leadership seemed set on creating pockets around the world and in Seattle, of them and us. Years ago in Genoa, I sat at dinner next to a man who told me he worked for the Italian subcontractor for the 787, which was then in great disarray because parts made in Italy didn’t fit when they arrived in Seattle. An engineer, he said the entire fiasco was an outrageous (and extraordinarily expensive) failure of communication.

The former McDonnell executives who moved to Seattle saw great economies of scale in breaking down the close shopfloor bonds between engineering and production. They set out systematically to sever those ties and, in the process, disassembled trust, the key component in Boeing planes. That they did so is easy to see in the quality control problems that exist today at Boeing. A disgruntled team no longer cares to give more than their all to building airplanes.

The photographs make up an atlas in several volumes of a place no longer existent. It is looking increasingly doubtful whether the land of human oversight and care that produced the Boeing planes can be reached once again. If it is gone forever, the photographs are ever more important artifacts of what has been lost.

In 1934, William E. Boeing sold his stock and left the company early. In the last couple of decades, the executive team did the opposite, selling out the company and overstaying their welcome. Perhaps presciently, the photographs let us see only fleeting glimpses of the Boeing plane builders, yet they were even stronger, straighter, and truer than Sitka spruce. The backbone of the company, they literally held together the company and the planes. Without such a dedicated, skilled, and supported workforce, the planes and the company are coming undone before our eyes.

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