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Boeing leans on its history for inspiration during coronavirus crisis

As Boeing has been easing back into production — against the backdrop of the pandemic and the death in March of an employee from COVID-19 — its corporate historian has been looking into the archives to learn how the 104-year-old company weathered the influenza pandemic over a century ago.

Even with devastating first-quarter economic news about Boeing’s global reach this week, it’s easy to forget that Boeing was once a small Seattle business with a single production facility along the Duwamish River. The company was just two years old during the 1918-1919 pandemic, when its 337 employees were building aircraft for a U.S. military embroiled in World War I.

That 337 employment figure comes from Boeing corporate historian Mike Lombardi. While researching early Boeing history a decade or so ago, he also came across a fascinating memo from 1918. Lombardi recently shared the memo, along with some reflections on its history and meaning today, through internal channels at Boeing.

He agreed to share what he found with KIRO Radio, too.

The memo – with a subject line that reads “Influenza Epidemic – Precautions deemed advisable” – is dated October 29, 1918. That’s right in the middle of the worst part of that 1918 influenza and its deadly effects in the Seattle area.

It reads, in part:

Expectoration, especially on the floors, walls, and driveways should be absolutely prohibited. Sneezing, coughing, or breathing in the face of a fellow workman should be avoided. If you have to sneeze or cough, do so behind your handkerchief. The slightest indication of a cold, chill, or fever, should be sufficient warning for any employee to seek medical attention at once. This as a precaution not only to himself, but to his fellow workers.

References to “expectoration” – better known as spitting –  in that era were about chewing tobacco, which was far more prevalent than cigarette smoking before the 1920s. Even with numerous spittoons, it seems tobacco-chewing male Boeing employees like to spit on the walls and the floors.

Mike Lombardi says that female seamstresses who worked at Boeing – stitching together the fabric panels that airplanes were made of then – found the spitting particularly offensive.

Spit as a possible vector for influenza, of course, made the habit more than just offensive.

The second paragraph of the memo includes additional specific recommendations that will seem pretty familiar to anyone living through the current pandemic:

Take every possible precaution to see that the room in which you are working is well ventilated. Avoid crowds wherever possible and see to it that your sleeping quarters are well ventilated at all times. This company urges all employees to use the so-called Influenza masks, according to the directions of the local health authorities, both coming to and from work and while at work, if they so desire. While this company does not specifically require that these masks be worn, nevertheless, it is deemed a most advisable precaution, and it is further believed the health authorities of the city will, in the near future, require the wearing of such masks at all times.

What’s most interesting about dusting off this 1918 memo in 2020 is that it wasn’t just a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Mike Lombardi says that Boeing management was an audience for what he found, too.

“In telling the story and sharing this memo, that went up to leadership,” Lombardi said. “And one of the important things with history is that it gives us a foundation, a sense, [and] that confidence that, ‘OK, we’ve been through this before. We made it through, so we can do that today.’ “

Among those 337 Boeing employees in 1918, Mike Lombardi says, only two came down with influenza. Like many shipyard workers around Puget Sound in 1918 and 1919, Boeing employees received doses of “antitoxin” or “serum,” which most medical authorities now believe were of little or no help in preventing flu.

One thing that’s different this time around is that the 1918 influenza wasn’t a direct economic threat to Boeing – and so many other businesses of all sizes — the way the COVID-19 pandemic has been.

But, with World War I ending with the Armistice on November 11, 1918 – about two weeks after the memo was written – government airplane contracts dried up almost overnight, and the company did face an existential crisis.

Mike Lombardi says that Bill Boeing had to make a choice.

“In the war, of course, the use for the airplane had really grown exponentially in a military sense and Bill Boeing understood that,” Lombardi said. “But he also had this vision that the airplane would serve humanity as far as carrying passengers and freight, and that it would change the world.”

“And he held on to that vision,” Lombardi said.

“[Bill Boeing] knew that if he could keep his company going and get through that initial crisis there in 1918, 1919, there would be no turning back,” he continued.

With the military contracts gone, rather than shut down the company, Bill Boeing chose to keep a core staff of skilled engineers and craftspeople on the payroll, whose wages he paid with personal funds.

Lombardi says that in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Boeing wasn’t building planes. Instead, they were building speed boats and even making household furniture.

Then, in 1921, the company got another airplane contract from the Army Air Corps that boosted employment at the factory along the Duwamish, and ultimately paved the way for additional expansion and a dominating role manufacturing bombers for World War II.

Bill Boeing’s bet had paid off, as would other 20th century bets by Boeing on those bombers in the 1930s and then airliners in the 1950s.

But Mike Lombardi doesn’t spend all his time looking back. He says that Boeing leadership has always viewed the company’s history as an asset, and this difficult era – first with the ongoing 737 MAX crisis and then with the addition of COVID-19 – is no exception.

It’s come down from the leadership of the company that they want to document this entire time,” Lombardi said, pointing to the grounding of the 737 MAX after two deadly crashes, the subsequent shutdown of that production line, and then, because of COVID-19, the temporary shutdown of the entire manufacturing arm of the company.

“It just really seems unprecedented [and] that we’re going through just some incredible adversity,” Lombardi said. “And so our leadership is … ensuring that that we do our work in capturing this … so that in the future we can look back at and say, ‘OK, we made it through that. What did we do? What were the lessons learned?”

“Hopefully, that will help those future leaders who could eventually run into their own times of adversity,” Lombardi added.

Efforts to document the current crises include Boeing photographers capturing images of the stilled factories. Lombardi says the corporate archives are also making plans to conduct oral history interviews with employees in the near future.

Since Lombardi is that rare historian who seems to have the ear of the leadership of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s tempting to think ahead to happier times and how the company might signal employees, shareholders and the general public that “Boeing is back.”

Would Mike Lombardi consider recommending that current CEO David Calhoun summon the spirit of that audacious stunt from the “Dash 80” era of the 1950s and maybe barrel-roll a 737 MAX over Seafair this year?

“Well, that’s putting a lot of different history elements together, isn’t it?” Lombardi said, chuckling for a moment before switching back to a more serious tone.

“Boeing’s going to get through,” he said. “They will come out stronger, and there’s an incredible future ahead for all of us.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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