The wealth-building power of compound interest will never cease to amaze me. It's a story of patience and attention to detail, where small, short-term differences add up to massive divergence over decades. And in the end, the biggest winners don't always deliver the fattest share-price returns.

Aircraft builder and military contractor Boeing (NYSE:BA) was a modest dividend story in the mid-2000s. Share prices were rocketing skyward, and Boeing's annual payout bumps could barely keep up. Yields hovered just above the 1% mark for four years.

The economic crisis of 2008 hit the reset button on Boeing's dividends. Increases were put on hold until 2012, but share prices plunged. When all is said and done, Boeing's current 2.3% yield looks meaty in the context of the stock's total dividend history.

BA Dividend Chart

BA Dividend data by YCharts

How big of a difference can these payouts really make for income investors? You might be surprised.

Over the last decade, Boeing has crushed its peers on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) by more than tripling share prices. But the total return jumps to a quadruple helping when you reinvest dividend checks along the way.

BA Chart

BA data by YCharts.

What's more, Boeing has plenty of headroom to increase its payouts further. The company spent just $1.3 billion on dividend checks over the last year while collecting $5.9 billion in free cash flows. That's a slim 22% cash payout ratio.

By comparison, Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) spent $535 million on dividends out of a $2.3 billion free cash pool, and Lockheed Martin 's (NYSE:LMT) dividends accounted for $1.35 billion out of just $619 million of free cash generated. Northrop's 23% payout ratio is in the same ballpark as Boeing's, but Lockheed cuts dividend checks faster than it can back them with fresh cash. Yes, Lockheed's 5% yield looks a lot richer than Boeing's 2.3%, but I'm not sure I'd bet the house on a negative cash-to-dividends ratio.

Dreamliner troubles notwithstanding, Boeing appears to be the far safer bet, in a virtual deadlock with Northrop Grumman.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any company mentioned. Check out Anders' bio and holdings or follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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