Boeing (NYSE:BA) is one of the pioneering names in aviation, and the company in recent years has been one of the top-performing stocks among industrial companies. Boeing shares have gained more than 145% over the past three years, easily outpacing the S&P 500's 44% gain, and the shares are up more than 600% over the past 10 years.

Investors who bought in 2009 are undoubtedly pleased with their investment. But how much could you have made if you bought in during Boeing's initial public offering?

By the numbers

Boeing began trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 2, 1962, according to data provided by the company's investor relations department. The shares traded for $0.8230 apiece that day, so $500 would have bought about 607.5 shares. The company completed eight stock splits between 1966 and 1997, and paid a dividend at the end of every quarter since listing on the exchange.

A Boeing 787-10 in flight.

Shares of Boeing have soared over the years. Image source: Boeing.

Presuming you reinvested those dividends and accounting for the splits, the adjusted price on the first day of trading was $0.1466 and you would now own more than 3,400 Boeing shares. Based on Boeing's $371.68 share price at close of business on Nov. 15, that original $500 investment would now be worth more than $1.268 million. That's a compound annual growth rate of more than 14%.

Boeing has had its share of ups and downs during that time, building products that helped launch the golden age of commercial aviation, powered NASA into space, and helped the Pentagon win wars, but also experiencing setbacks including a failed supersonic to rival the Concorde and, more recently, issues with the 737 MAX. But an investor who held steady through the highs and lows would have done quite well, a reminder of Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner's advice to hold steady because over time, winners win.

A storied, twisting history

It's probably not a surprise that Boeing's history dates to well before its public listing, but many don't know how much of the modern U.S. aviation industry was once tied together under the Boeing name. William E. Boeing, a Seattle-area timber exec with an interest in flying, started Pacific Aero Products Co. in 1916, renaming it Boeing Airplane Co. a year later. The company's first product, the Model C, was used by the U.S. Navy in the later stages of World War I.

Two men pose in front of a Model C seaplane.

William Boeing (with mailbag) and pilot Eddie Hubbard pose in front of the Model C in 1919. Image source: Boeing.

Boeing spent the next decade-plus consolidating the young aviation industry. The company merged its Boeing Air Transport with a handful of other smaller airlines to form United Airlines, which provided coast-to-coast airmail service. Boeing also consolidated engine maker Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky helicopter, Chance Vought, and other airplane component manufacturers.

The U.S. government forced the breakup of Boeing via the Air Mail Act of 1934, which prohibited airlines and aircraft manufacturer combinations. The airline assets were split off and became the forerunner of the modern United Airlines Holdings, while the manufacturing operations were split at the Mississippi River.

The western assets retained the Boeing name, and form the heart of the modern company. The eastern assets, including Pratt & Whitney, became United Technologies, which expanded into several other industries and currently has a deal pending to merge its aerospace business with Boeing competitor Raytheon.

The new Boeing continued to consolidate over the years, regaining a helicopter division lost in the UTC split via a 1960 purchase of Vertol Aircraft and all but taking over the domestic commercial airline market with its 1996 purchase of McDonnell Douglas.

William Boeing ended his formal association with the company around the time of the breakup and was said to have divested most of his shares around that time. If not, his estate would have generated returns well in excess of what IPO buyers have enjoyed.

What do the next 57 years look like?

Today's Boeing, a behemoth with $100 billion in sales, enjoys a duopoly with Airbus in commercial aviation and ranks as one of the top defense companies supplying the U.S. government. Its 787 Dreamliner is setting flight distance records, and its total backlog equals more than a half decade's worth of production.

Workers constructing a wing by hand in a Boeing facility.

Boeing has come a long way from the days of workers handcrafting canvas and wooden wings for biplanes. Image source: Boeing.

It is also a company shrouded in controversy after its much-anticipated 737 MAX was involved in two fatal crashes, leading to a grounding that is still in effect as of this writing and is expected to add up to billions in customer penalties and other expenses. Its 777X, another promising model in development, has had its own setbacks. And the defense arm in 2018 was subject to a rare public tongue lashing by the Air Force secretary at the time, Heather Wilson, due to delays and issues with a new tanker aircraft.

For the time being, I've advised not investing new dollars in Boeing until management works out the issues in internal processes and proves it has control of the company's sprawling portfolio. But I do have faith in the strength of the underlying portfolio and see no reason to sell now whether you've held since 1962 or bought last month.

Boeing's next half-century might not produce the same gains as the first 50 years, but over time the stock is likely to continue to gain altitude.