Tucked inside a 17,000 square-foot building, with vaults protected by a high security system of checkpoints and keypads, lie the treasures of a corporation that has changed the very world in which we live. The collection includes four million photo negatives, 100,000 rolls of motion picture film, scores of model airplanes, crates of flight memorabilia, and documents going back more than a century.
Welcome to the Boeing Archives, where senior corporate historian Michael Lombardi is in charge.
Lombardi supervises a staff of four who work in three Boeing archival facilities around the country. The main archive, which preserves the corporate history of Boeing as well as North American Rockwell, is housed in a warehouse in Bellevue, Wash., outside Seattle. A second location near Long Beach, Calif., preserves the Douglas Commercial Aircraft archive, while a third facility in St. Louis is responsible for McDonnell Douglas and Hughes Aircraft. Over the years, as Boeing acquired these aviation giants, the company inherited their archives as well.
Lombardi grew up in Boeing’s backyard in Renton, Wash. More than 11,600 commercial 707s, 727s, 737s and 757s—about 30 percent of the worldwide fleet in operation today— were built in the Renton facility.
Hundreds of airplane models crowd the shelves in Boeing's corporate archives, located in Bellevue, Wash. (Boeing)
Growing up that close to an aviation powerhouse made an impression on the young Lombardi. A self-proclaimed “airplane nut,” he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and began working in the mailroom at the Boeing Company in 1979.
“I wasn’t working there long before I moved up to the technical library and then to records management,” he said. “One day, I went into Plant 2, which was the old B-17 factory. I saw all these old models and archival documents and I thought: This is where I want to work.”
It took 15 years until the current historian retired and Lombardi successfully applied for the job. He’s been happily ensconced there ever since. “It’s the perfect job for me,” he said. “It combines my passion for history with my interest in libraries and collecting. I love what I do and I look forward to coming to work every day.”
Located along the Duwamish River, the Red Barn served as Boeing company headquarters from 1917 to 1929. Restored in 1983, the building became the first permanent site of the Museum of Flight. (Boeing)
Last year, the Boeing Company celebrated its centennial, putting Lombardi and his team front-and-center as they responded to requests from around the world for photos and videos, stories and facts, about the company and its iconic brand.
Maintaining corporate history and responding to information requests are not the only things that occupy the archivist’s time. “Boeing is primarily an engineering company, and designing a new airplane is expensive and time-consuming,” said Lombardi. “Sometimes our staff can provide documentation that helps engineers see how a similar design problem was solved in the past, saving some time and money.”
Archival records are also used when certain legal issues arise around patents, product safety or environmental concerns. “We are called in where there are corporate disputes or lawsuits pending,” said Lombardi. “Our records can potentially save the company millions.”
Lombardi acknowledges that maintaining an archive has changed dramatically in the past few decades and the company continues to grapple with issues complicated by digital technology and the rise of social media. “There are so many variables nowadays,” said Lombardi. “It’s no longer just letters, photos or printed documents. Now we need to know if the records are on a floppy disc, a CD or a memory stick.”
As a Boeing spokesperson, historian Michael Lombardi is a popular speaker at aviation conferences and events worldwide. (Boeing)
One of the main challenges is the wealth of material available. “In the past, physical records were meaningful,” he said. “It took time and effort to write a letter. It was important to somebody. Now about 99 percent of what is produced digitally is virtually worthless.”
The team relies on collection guidelines to help them decide what gets saved for future generations. “We are interested in records that tell our story,” explained Lombardi. “We know our story better than anyone else so if it’s an important piece of our history, we’ll collect it. We also evaluate items that are relevant to our business and may be important 50 years from now.”
Sometimes it takes an outside inquiry to uncover an interesting archival story. In 2009, Lombardi was contacted by the Fashion Institute of Technology which was planning an exhibit on Muriel King, a well-known Hollywood fashion designer in the 1940s who coincidently had been born in the Pacific Northwest.
During World War II, as women were taking over more factory jobs, Boeing saw its accident rate rise because the women were wearing clothes not appropriate for a factory environment. Boeing asked King to design a clothing line that would be durable, functional and attractive, and not get caught in the machinery.
Called Flying Fortress Fashions after the B-17 Flying Fortress, the outfits were made of rayon and cotton in a blue-gray color to hide stains. “That request for information tipped me off to this story,” said Lombardi, “and it was all there in our archives, including photographs.”
Lombardi credits his strong work ethic to his great-grandfather who came to the U.S. in 1910 as a 15-year-old from a town near Naples. “My great-grandfather was a construction foreman on some of the area’s large road and bridge projects,” he said. “He also built runways used by Boeing. This man pinned all his hopes and dreams on his new country, and I felt it was important to do something in return. I felt it was up to me to make something of myself.”