US industrialist, aviator, and film producer. Inheriting wealth from his father, the industrialist Howard Robert Hughes, who had patented a revolutionary oil-drilling bit, he took control of the family firm, the Hughes Tool Corporation, in 1923, to create a financial empire. A skilled pilot, he manufactured and designed aircraft. He also formed a Hollywood film company in 1926, and produced and directed several films including Hell's Angels (1930), Scarface (1932), and The Outlaw (1944). From his middle years he was a recluse.
In 1953 Hughes gave up control of his company to an independent executive board following senior executive departures and, in 1955, he allocated the company's profits to his newly-founded Hughes Medical Institute (also the holding company for Hughes Aircraft). On his death there was much confusion over who would inherit his wealth, though a large part of his fortune had been transferred to his institute.
Hughes was born in Houston, Texas. He was educated at boarding school until his father moved the family in 1921 to Hollywood, California, where he studied mathematics and engineering courses at the California Institute of Technology.
After his father's death, Hughes (then aged 18) took control of the family business, which he used to finance his debut as a film producer. His studios produced 40 films from 1926 to 1957. He also ran RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum) Pictures, bought for $8.83 million in 1948, until he sold it for $25 million in 1967.
Hughes's other passion was designing and flying airplanes; he had taken his first flying lessons at the age of 14. The continued success of Hughes Tool Corporation enabled him to found the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 and to support his experiments in flight; he set a speed record (352 mph/566 kph) in a craft of his own design in 1935. Three years later, he flew a two-engined Lockheed plane to make a record round-the-world flight in 3 days and 19 hours (which earned him a congressional medal). In 1939 he acquired a majority holding in TransWorld Airlines (TWA). He was forced to sell his TWA stock in 1966 to part finance a $400 million order for jet airliners. His company designed and constructed airplanes for commercial and military use, and during the 1940s and 1950s a subsidiary, Hughes Electronics, was one of the major suppliers of weapons to the US Air Force and Navy. It also developed defence systems (Falcon air-to-air guided missiles) and later in the 1960s developed artificial satellites. However, he was less successful with a federal contract to build a massive 8-engined plane, the ‘Spruce Goose’ – made primarily out of plywood and designed to carry 700 passengers – which flew only once in 1947.
As his health deteriorated Hughes became a recluse, controlling his business interests from hotel suites, giving rise to endless rumour and speculation about his lifestyle.
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