Hughes, Howard Robard, Sr. (1869–1924)

By: R. C. Gano

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 1, 1995

Howard Robard Hughes, son of Felix Turner and Jean Amelia (Summerlin) Hughes, was born at Lancaster, Missouri, on September 9, 1869. Hughes attended school at Keokuk, Iowa, and prepared for college at military academies at Morgan Park, Illinois, and St. Charles, Missouri. He entered Harvard in 1893 and after two years began the study of law at the University of Iowa. Without completing his law course, he began to practice with his father at Keokuk; but he soon engaged in lead and zinc mining in southwestern Missouri, with headquarters at Joplin. When the Spindletop Oilfield was brought in in 1901, 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. Having recognized for some time the industry's sore need of a specially designed bit which would penetrate hard rock, Hughes, with his partner's approval, decided to take a vacation and concentrate on the designing of a rock bit. He visited his parents' home in Keokuk and, after two weeks devoted to the problem, believed he had the solution. He had evolved the basic design of the bit which later became world famous-a bit with cone-shaped revolving cutters studded with tough steel teeth, which, under a heavy weight of pipe, would roll on the rock at the bottom of the well, and grind and pulverize the rock, rather than scrape it. He filed his applications for patents on November 20, 1908, and on August 10, 1909, was granted two patents for rock drills, the basic patents for the Hughes Rock Bit, which, from the start, penetrated medium and hard rock with ten times the speed of any former bit and which continued to be used in rotary rock drilling throughout the world. In its initial tests, at Goose Creek the bit penetrated in eleven hours fourteen feet of the hard rock, which no previous equipment had been able to penetrate at all. By 1914 the drill bit was used in eleven states and thirteen foreign countries. In 1909, with Walter Sharp, Hughes organized the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company to manufacture the bit. After Sharp's death in 1912 Hughes took over management of the company and by about 1918 purchased the Sharp stock, which had been bought from Sharp's widow by Ed Prather (see BAKER HUGHES). Hughes was very progressive-minded in his approach to oil drilling and eventually patented over twenty-five improvements to his drill. He also initiated experimental research on the manufacture of a steel wedge-type gate valve for high pressure service in the oil industry. In all, he obtained seventy-three patents during his lifetime. Hughes married Allene Gano of Dallas in 1904. They had one son, Howard Hughes, Jr. Hughes engaged in many philanthropies, always anonymously, most of them related to universities and the aiding of deserving students. He died on January 14, 1924.

Charles Albert Warner, Texas Oil and Gas Since 1543 (Houston: Gulf, 1939).
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Business
  • Science
  • Inventors
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

R. C. Gano, “Hughes, Howard Robard, Sr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995