September 12, 2021

The son of a successful lawyer, Howard Robard Hughes, Sr., was born in Lancaster, Missouri, on September 9, 1869. He spent his childhood years in Keokuk, Iowa. Hughes followed in his father’s professional footsteps for a while after studying law at Harvard University and the University of Iowa. But, he would soon leave the Keokuk law practice for the lure of the lead- and zinc-mining business near Joplin, Missouri.
Hughes said: “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.”
He quickly decided to capitalize on the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas in 1901, as a result of which he began devoting his full-time to the oil business. Hughes recognized that event as the beginning of a great new industry and immediately established himself in the drilling and contracting business at Beaumont, Texas. For seven years he and Walter B. Sharp followed the oil industry from one field to another in Texas and Louisiana, experiencing the traditional ups and downs of the business in that period.
In 1907 Hughes attempted to drill wells in two promising wildcat areas, Pierce Junction and Goose Creek, Texas, but in both localities he was unable to complete the wells because of the extremely hard rock encountered. But, during those early days of the oil industry, drillers could not reach the big prize of oil under medium-to hard-rock formations. The common fishtail bit would dull quickly with little rate of penetration.
Around 1906, Mr. Hughes began to conduct experiments on a rock bit designed to replace the fishtailbit. In 1908, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Sharp built the first wooden model of a rollertype bit with two cone-shaped cutters. They tested this experimental bit in Goose Creek, Texas in 1909; the pipe twisted off, but a second bit test proved successful. According to a Hughes Tool Company biography, Mr. Hughes “drilled fourteen feet of hard rock in eleven hours, brought in a well, and thus discovered the Goose Creek field, which became one of the greatest oil fields in the Gulf Coast region.” Instead of scraping the rock, as does the fishtail bit, the Hughes bit, with its two conical cutters, took a different engineering approach. By chipping, crushing, and powdering hardrock formations, the Hughes Two-Cone Drill Bit could reach vast amounts of oil in reservoirs thousands of feet below the surface.
The House No.1 well of the Producers’ Oil Co., Humble, Texas, struck rock at a depth of 1,819 ft., after which the fishtail bit bored 38 ft. in 19 days, an average of 2 ft. per day. The cone bit was then substituted and bored 72 ft. in 6 days or 12 ft. per day, a six-fold increase in performance, resulting in a 75% reduction in cost-per-foot.
This new drilling technology would revolutionize the industry. The US Patent Office issued a patent on August 10, 1909. Hughes founded the co-founded the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company with Walter Benona Sharp
In 1910, a year after the company’s founding, the partners opened the industry’s first research laboratory to study rock bit performance.
Mr. Sharp died in 1912, and Mr. Hughes purchased Sharp’s half of the business.
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.
In 1915, the Hughes Tool Company was incorporated in Texas.
Howard Hughes, Jr. Hughes engaged in many philanthropies, always anonymously, most of them related to universities and the aiding of deserving students.
On January 14, 1924, Hughes Sr. 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.
After Hughes Sr. died of a heart attack in 1924, the younger Howard (his only child) inherited the majority interest in the company, and then convinced his relatives to sell their shares to him as well. Legally emancipated at the age of 18, Howard began using the profits from Hughes Tool to fund his other ventures.
In 1933, twenty-four years after Mr. Hughes’ invention and nine years after his sudden death, Hughes Tool Company engineers developed advancements to the original Two-Cone Bit concept. The company commercialized the Tricone™ three-cone bit, which quickly became the industry standard. During the Tricone bit’s seventeen-year patent protection, the company’s market share approached 100 percent.
In 1972, Howard Hughes Jr. sold Hughes Tool Company in an initial public offering. Fifteen years later and seventy-eight years after its founding, Hughes Tool Company merged with Baker International. The new company began operations under the name Baker Hughes.
In 1990, Baker Hughes acquired Eastman Christensen, which had evolved from the original Christensen Diamond Products Company founded March 1944 in Salt Lake City, Utah
Baker Hughes observed its 100th year of service to the industry in 2007. Baker Hughes traces its beginning to the technological innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of Reuben Carl Baker who patented the casing shoe in 1907.
(Source: ASME/Texas State Historical Association/Wikipedia – Image: Artist’s view of Howard Hughes Sr. preparing a roller-type drill bit/ASME)