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For many, the name Howard Hughes conjures up an image of an eccentric, reclusive American business tycoon and philanthropist. That would be an accurate assessment of Howard Hughes Jr., but it was his father, Howard Hughes Sr., who got the financial ball rolling.

Howard Robard Hughes Sr. was born in Lancaster, Missouri, on Sept. 9, 1869, to Jean Amelia (Summerlin) and Judge Felix Hughes. His early education was obtained in Keokuk, Iowa. In 1893, he enrolled at Harvard University, but the next year found him in the Law School of the Iowa State University with the intent of following in his father's law practice. Too impatient for classrooms, he went before the Supreme Court of Iowa, passed the exam, and began practicing law. This, however, was less than satisfying.

"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," Hughes said in 1912.

Hughes lived in many places (Keokuk, Iowa; New York City; Joplin, Missouri; and Beaumont, Texas) before settling in Houston. He and Allene Stone Gano were joined in holy matrimony on June 24, 1904. Their union produced one son, Howard Hughes Jr., who was born Dec. 24, 1905, in Humble, Texas.

Hughes engaged in several mining ventures before settling on the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas. He applied for patents for his two-cone rotary drill bit in 1908 and, on Aug. 10, 1909, was granted U.S. Patent 930,758 and U.S. Patent 930,759 for it. Nicknamed "rock eater," it penetrated rock 10 times faster than any previous drill bits and revolutionized the oil industry. This proved to be the beginning of his vast fortune.

Partnering with Walter Benona Sharp, they co-founded the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company in 1909. Upon Sharp's death in 1912, Hughes took over management and began buying all the company stock he could lay hands on. By 1918, Hughes had acquired full ownership of the company, renaming it the Hughes Tool Company. The company's main assets were the 1909 patents, and licensing fees were the main income. By now, this new drill bit was used in 11 states and 13 foreign countries.

Howard Hughes Sr. died of a heart attack Jan. 14, 1924, while at his office in Houston. His wife had preceded him in death. Howard Hughes Jr., 19, inherited 75 percent of the company and its control. The remaining 25 percent of the company was left to his parents and brother, Felix Jr.

On Aug. 10, 2009, the 100th anniversary of the patent, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the Sharp-Hughes rotary rock drill bit a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written Historically Yours for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008. In celebration of Missouri's upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to [email protected]

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