Howard R. Hughes, Sr.

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Hughes in 1917 next to the Hughes Tool Company manufacturing plant in Houston.

Howard Robard Hughes, Sr. (September 9, 1869 – January 14, 1924) was an American businessman. He is best known as the father of Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., the famous American business tycoon. By co-founding the Hughes Tool Company in 1908 and patenting the two-cone rotary drill bit during the Texas Oil Boom, Hughes, Sr. created the fortune that Hughes, Jr. would inherit at the age of 18.

Early years[edit]

Hughes was born in Lancaster, Missouri. His parents were Felix Turner Hughes (November 10, 1837, Millstadt, Illinois – October 19, 1926, Los Angeles, California) and Jean Amelia Summerlin (May 6, 1842, Keosauqua, Iowa – November 4, 1928, Los Angeles, California), who had been married in Scotland County, Memphis, Missouri on August 1, 1865. Felix was in the Union Army (enlisted Missouri Volunteer Forces, August 18, 1862) during the American Civil War. In turn, Felix was the son of Joshua Hughes and Martha Askins, while Jean was the daughter of Thomas Summerlin and Bathsheba Robards.

Hughes' older sister Greta (June 4, 1866 – 1916), better known by her stage name Jeanne Greta, was a grand opera and concert singer.[1] His younger brother Rupert was the famed novelist and screenwriter. His youngest brother Felix, Jr. (October 1, 1874 – September 9, 1961) was a baritone opera singer.[1] Two younger siblings, Jean and an unnamed male child "Baby Hughes" (both born 1880 in Keokuk, Iowa) died in infancy.

Education and marriage[edit]

Hughes attended grade school at Keokuk, Iowa, and prepared for college at Morgan Park Military Academy in Chicago, Illinois and at Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri. He entered Harvard University in 1893 as part of the Class of 1897 but dropped out the next year in 1894 (although he said that his son Howard would attend Harvard as part of the Class of 1926, Howard was uninterested in attending Harvard, instead matriculating at Rice University in Houston and dropping out after his father's death).[2] He then began the study of law at the University of Iowa College of Law. Without completing his law course, he began to practice with his father in Keokuk.[3] Later, in Dallas County, Dallas, Texas, on June 24, 1904, he married Allene Stone Gano (Georgetown, Kentucky, July 14, 1883 – March 29, 1922, daughter of William Beriah Gano and wife Jeannette de la Fayette Grissim). His wife and mother-in-law (Grissim) were descendants of Owen Tudor, second husband of Catherine of Valois, Dowager Queen of England.[4][5] Their honeymoon in England, France, and Germany was a "journey around the world" for them,[2] and they returned to Hughes' home at 1404 Crawford Street, Houston, Texas with very little money.

Hughes was a classic entrepreneur, trying and failing at many endeavors before eventually finding success. After spending his childhood and early adulthood in Keokuk, Iowa, Hughes lived in various places such as New York City (where he was a member of the Harvard Club of New York), Denver, Joplin, and Beaumont, before finally settling in Houston, Texas (where Hughes Jr. was born and lived his childhood).[6]

After leaving Harvard in '94, I found myself in the Law School of the Iowa State University. It was my father's wish that I succeed him in his practice. Too impatient to await the course of graduation, I passed the examination before the Supreme Court of Iowa and began the practice of law. I soon found the law a too-exacting mistress for a man of my talent, and I quit her between dark and dawn, and have never since been back. I decided to search for my fortune under the surface of the earth.

—Howard Hughes, Sr., 1912[2]

Hughes drill bits[edit]

The manufacturing operations of Hughes' Sharp-Hughes Tool Company at 2nd and Girard Streets in Houston, Texas.

Hughes engaged in various mining business endeavors before capitalizing on the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas, as a result of which he began devoting his full-time to the oil business. On November 20, 1908, he filed the basic patents for the Sharp-Hughes Rock Bit, and on August 10, 1909 was granted U.S. Patent 930,758 and U.S. Patent 930,759 for this rock drill. Hughes' two-cone rotary drill bit, nicknamed "rock eater",[2] penetrated medium and hard rock with ten times the speed of any former bit, and its development revolutionized oil well drilling.

It is unlikely that he actually invented the two-cone roller bit, but his legal experience helped him in understanding that its patents were important for capitalizing on the invention. According to the PBS show History Detectives, several other people and companies had produced similar drill bits years earlier. In its initial tests at Goose Creek Oilfield in 1909 where the first offshore drilling for oil in Texas was occurring in Harris County, 21 mi (34 km) southeast of Houston on Galveston Bay, the Sharp-Hughes Rock Bit penetrated 14 ft (4.3 m) of hard rock in 11 hours which no previous equipment had been able to penetrate at all.

He co-founded the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company with Walter Benona Sharp, based in Houston, Texas in 1909, and after Sharp's death in 1912 took over management. Hughes began purchasing the Sharp stock immediately and by 1918 had acquired full ownership of the company. The essential assets of Hughes Tool Company (as it was renamed) were August 10, 1909 patents for his dual-cone rotary drill bit. The fees for licensing this technology were the basis of Hughes Tool's revenues, and by 1914 the dual-cone roller bit was used in eleven U.S. states and in thirteen foreign countries. Hughes himself whimsically remarked that one of his "fond plans" was to "drill the deepest well in the world", comparing his quest to the Earth's center to Amundsen's South Pole expedition and Robert Peary's North Pole expeditions.[2]

In 2009, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the Hughes Two-Cone Drill Bit as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.[7]

Death and legacy[edit]

Hughes is buried at the Hughes family gravesite at Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, next to his wife and son.

On January 14, 1924, Hughes died of a heart attack caused by an embolism at his company's offices on the fifth floor of the Humble Oil Building in Houston at the age of 54.[8] After his death, his only child Howard R. Hughes, Jr. assumed control of the company as its 75% owner at the age of 19. In his will, Hughes Sr. had left the remaining 25% to his parents, Felix Sr. and Mimi, and his brother Felix Jr.[8] A little more than a year after his father's death, Hughes Jr. had himself declared an adult (the age of majority at the time being 21) and bought out his grandparents and uncle, now controlling the entirety of Hughes Tool Company.[8]

The next year in 1925, Hughes Jr. appointed Noah Dietrich as CEO of Hughes Tool while he himself left for California to pursue filmmaking and aviation. In 1933, Hughes Tool engineers created a tri-cone rotary drill bit, and from 1934 to 1951 Hughes' market share approached 100%. The Sharp-Hughes Rock Bit found virtually all the oil discovered during the initial years of rotary drilling, and Hughes Jr. became one of the wealthiest people in the world from its revenues. Returning to play a more central role in Hughes Tool in the 1940s, Hughes Jr. diversified the company's holdings over by expanding into filmmaking, aviation, and the casino industry in Las Vegas, although his father's core tool manufacturing business remained by far the company's chief source of revenue.

In 1972, by which time Hughes Tool had become widely diversified, Hughes Jr. sold the nucleus tool division and realized $150 million from the sale.[9] In 1987, Hughes Tool merged with Baker International to form Baker Hughes, a large oilfield services company still based in Houston.


  1. ^ a b Saerchinger, César (1918). International Who's who in Music and Musical Gazetteer. Current Literature Publishing Co. p. 293. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Harvard College Class of 1897 Fourth Report. Harvard University: Rockwell and Churchill Press. 1912. pp. 218–220. 
  3. ^ Donald L. Barlett, James B. Steele. Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
  4. ^ Tombo do Guarda-Mór Guarda-Mór-Edição de Publicações Multimédia, Lda Lisboa, 2000
  5. ^ - Howard Robard Hughes Jr
  6. ^ 1897, Harvard College (1780- ). Class of (1903). Harvard College Class of 1897 second report. Harvard University: Harvard University Press. p. 97. 
  7. ^ Hughes Two-Cone Drill Bit Designated a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, August 10, 2009. PDF
  8. ^ a b c Hack, Richard (2007). Hughes The Private Diaries, Memons and Letters. Phoenix Books, Inc. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-59777-549-6. 
  9. ^ Texas Monthly: Read Me. Texas, Texas Monthly