Howard Hughes was born on December 24, 1905 in Houston, Texas. His father had invented the dual cone roller bit, an oil drilling device, and founded the Hughes Tool Company. By the time Howard was born, his parents were very wealthy and he was able to live a luxurious lifestyle.
In his youth, he was allowed to attend a great number of schools, but never officially received his high school diploma. His father eventually arranged for him to take classes in engineering at the California Institute of Technology, but he left to study at the Rice Institute. Unfortunately, his parents died when Howard was reaching the end of his teens, leaving him a massive fortune.
Rather than continue his father's business, Howard decided to become a film producer. In 1927, he released his first film, "Everybody's Acting", which was followed quickly by "Two Arabian Knights". He provided the financial backing for the two films and both were very successful, making him a tidy profit on his investment. He continued making movies, including 1928's "The Racket" and 1931's "The Front Page".
In 1932, Hughes produced "Scarface", which would prove to be one of the first successful gangster films in history. It inspired many others, including the James Cagney wave and Scorsese's epic films. Although it was controversial due to its violence, the film addressed the serious problem of organized crime in the United States.
In the early 1930s, Hughes also started working on a very revolutionary aircraft called the Hughes H-1 Racer. It was completed by 1935 and he set a world speed record of 352 mph while flying it on September 13th of that year. The Racer was innovative in many aspects since it featured new inventions such as retractable landing gear and flush rivets to reduce aerodynamic drag.
In 1937, he set another air speed record by flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds at an average speed of 322 mph. On July 10, 1938, he set another record by flying around the world in 91 hours, which beat the prior record by a margin of four days. For his achievements he received numerous awards, including the Harmon Trophy, Collier Trophy, and Octave Chanute Award.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Howard became a principal stockholder in Transcontinental and Western Air. The company later became known as Trans World Airlines and financed the development of many unique and fast planes. Hughes continued to work on plane engineering, participating in much of the development of the Lockheed Constellation.
In 1943, Hughes produced a film called "The Outlaw". The film starred Jane Russell, for whom Hughes designed a special brassiere to accentuate her voluptuous breasts. Her strong sexuality in the picture made it very controversial and it had to be released in 1946 after a great deal of modification to comply with censorship standards.
On July 7, 1946, Howard was flying an experimental US Army spy plane known as the XF-11. Disaster struck when an oil leak caused one of the props to malfunction and the plane went down in a Beverly Hills neighborhood. The plane mowed down three houses before skidding to a stop, where a fuel tank exploded. Hughes managed to survive and crawled out of the plane, but not before sustaining a broken collar bone, six broken ribs, and a lot of severe third degree burns. He was never quite the same after the accident and took to wearing a mustache to disguise a scar on his upper lip.
In 1953, Hughes founded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the state of Delaware. The institute was primarily for research and Hughes financed it by giving it all of his stock in Hughes Aircraft Company. The move caught the attention of the IRS, but they failed to prove that any wrongdoing was occurring and the institute remains today with an endowment of over twelve billion dollars.
During the 1950s, Hughes began to exhibit symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. He had long shown symptoms, but by this time they were beginning to seriously impact his life. Eventually, he became a total recluse, hiding in his home and ingesting large amounts of codeine and Valium. Some of his erratic behavior included picking up everything using paper towels and using Kleenex boxes as shoes.
Hughes also reportedly suffered from a syphilis infection that he had contracted during his youth. After being diagnosed, he burned all of his clothes and every linen in his house out of fear for the germs that lingered on them. Some people attribute his bizarre behavior later in his life to an advanced stage of the disease.
In 1961, he founded Hughes Space and Communications to develop spacecraft and technologies for space exploration. That same year, TWA managers and stockholders became disillusioned with Hughes' leadership and forced him out of the company. As a result, he had to sell all of his stock, which ended up being worth about five hundred million dollars.
In the late 1960s, Hughes moved to Las Vegas, where he proceeded to buy hotels and casinos. He first purchased the Desert Inn and moved into the penthouse. Later, he obtained the Sands Casino, The Landmark, New Frontier, and Silver Slipper. He stated that he wanted to turn the city away from its mafia image into a classy tourist attraction.
In 1972, Hughes was hired by the CIA to help recover a sunken Soviet submarine that had gone down off the coast of Hawaii in 1968. He designed and financed a salvage boat named the Glomar Explorer, giving the cover that he was using it for undersea research. In 1974, an attempt was made to raise the sunken submarine and the military was able to recover nuclear missiles and some cryptography machines from the vessel.
On April 5, 1976, Howard Hughes died of kidney failure while en route to Houston, Texas from one of his homes in Mexico. An autopsy showed that he had a more than fatal amount of codeine in his bloodstream as well as a massive amount of Valium. He was also found to have severe malnutrition and even a number of broken off hypodermic needles stuck inside of his arms.