The quintessential engineering pro
BY STEPHEN DAVIS
Those who knew Edward Wells considered him to be the quintessential engineering professional.
Although Wells took on significant leadership positions in The Boeing Company, his passion was technology and the development of technical excellence in others.
"If our philosophy should ever be 'marginally acceptable is good enough,' we are in a sorry predicament indeed," he once said.
Wells joined the company in 1931. By 1934, he had filed his first patent for a retractable landing gear and had become project engineer on the Model 299. Just 24 years old, he was responsible for the entire preliminary design of the 299, the airplane that became the B-17 "Flying Fortress."
His final patent for the 747 landing gear came in 1982, the year before he left Boeing.
It was a 50-year career with an immense impact, but his modesty and quiet genius has hidden the enormity of his influence.
"Neither Allen (William Allen, Boeing president from 1945 to 1968) nor I did one thing technically that Wells didn't approve of," said Thornton "T" Wilson, Boeing president from 1968 to 1972.
Wells' genius was in knowing when to listen. He improved the B-17 by studying reports from its combat crews, especially the critical ones. It was said that he had a total lack of engineering ego. He'd say, "Well, if it's wrong, fix it."
By the end of the war, he was pursuing the new technologies for jet-powered and supersonic flight. Wells might have been content directing the development of the B-47 Stratojet, the first swept-wing bomber, and the B-52, technical precursors to the 707 family of commercial airplanes.
But he wasn't about to let his engineers miss anything. "We are falling behind in some of the critical technology, missiles and spacecraft," he said in 1945. So he set up the company's first scientific research unit, which originated some of the ideas that went into the BOMARC missile.
Wells developed new organizational capabilities for this complex technology. In the late 1950s he established the Systems Management Office, which played a role in winning the Minuteman Missile program. The program's success established the company's reputation as a manager of complex systems and led directly to the profound Boeing involvement in the U.S. space program.
Wells' breadth of capabilities was always in service to his profession. His ability to draw and to build models helped a small group from Boeing revise its Air Force bomber proposal during one weekend in 1948 at the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, Ohio, securing the contract for designing the B-52.
He spoke five languages, using them to build understanding with an increasingly global market for the company's commercial aircraft after 1950.
During his executive career, Wells took time to get to know the young engineers. One said, "He would often make a suggestion for an improvement of our design, then give us the credit for that innovation." Throughout his career, Wells remained true to his passion.
In 1965, when the search committee for a successor to Boeing President Bill Allen approached him, he wrote, "Do not consider myself qualified. Primary interest in Product Development, Customer Communication and Requirements, and development of Technical-Scientific competence with Boeing."
Wells was immersed in all Boeing airplane programs, from the B-17 to the 767. He focused consistently on technological innovation and the people and organization to bring it out. He left behind a rich legacy of engineering achievements and was himself the ultimate engineer.
"There always have been problems to solve," Wells said in a videotape interview just before his death in 1986, "and the only answer to that is to get with it."
The author obtained material for this article from the Ed Wells Initiative, a joint program of Boeing and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. For more information on this program, go to http://edwells.web.boeing.com on the Boeing intranet.
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