Part 1—The Legacy of the Hughes Family: Howard Hughes Sr.

Explore the history of Howard Hughes Sr., inventor of the two-cone roller bit, in Part 1 of this two-part series highlighting the Hughes family legacy in the oil and gas industry.

The Houston manufacturing operations of Sharp-Hughes Tool.
Source: Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.

The spark that lit the fires of the oil age and consequently accelerated the Second Industrial Revolution (automobiles, power, etc.) can be traced to one man and his invention. That man was Howard Hughes Sr. and his invention, the roller-cone drill bit.

Born in 1869, Hughes was a naturally restless and rebellious child with an obsession for tinkering with mechanical objects. He had taken and given up multiple different interests quickly, sticking to none. Following his father’s path as a lawyer, he enrolled at Harvard University in 1893 to study law, dropping out within a year. He re-enrolled in law school once again at the The University of Iowa.

Too restless to wait until his graduation, he attempted the bar examination and passed, beginning his practice at his father’s law firm. However, his law career was short-lived, as he soon abandoned it to don the overalls of an earth miner and prospector, moving from one find to another.

Drawn by the excitement of the Spindletop oil discoveries in Texas, he moved around with the crowd of oil miners to find his fortune like many others before settling in “Oil Town” Houston to be closer to the industry.

About a year after his son Howard Hughes Jr. was born, the family moved to Louisiana which had become a new hotspot for oil prospecting. Hughes went into partnership with an oilman, Walter Sharp.

A few decades before, the First Industrial Revolution had created an increasing energy need, initially met by coal-fired steam power and whale oil. However, the discoveries of significant oil reserves in sites like the Spindletop gusher in Beaumont, Texas (1901)—producing 100,000 BPD at its peak— and later on in the Glen Pool field near Tulsa, Oklahoma (1905), gradually shifted the energy landscape, increasing oil’s popularity. Petroleum’s energy density and ease of transport also meant that it was a more-efficient and economically viable fuel source.

As the oil prospecting craze heated up, the honeymoon of shallow-oil discoveries and gusher wells quickly ended. Oil prospectors now faced severe problems extracting oil from more-difficult rock formations. The famous fish-tailed bit, the technology in favor with oil drillers at the time, could no longer cut it. This bit worked by scraping away the hole as it turned.

When used in medium- and hard-rock formations, the fish-tail bit made little progress, rapidly wearing down to blunt stubs of steel. This fatal flaw prevented oil prospectors from drilling into anything beyond shallow oil reservoirs. Hughes and Sharp got increasingly frustrated by this challenge despite having earlier successes while prospecting.

By 1906, Hughes had begun conducting private experiments to develop a drill bit that would replace the fish-tail bit. By 1908, Hughes and Sharp had built the first wooden model of what they called a two-cone roller bit.

Hughes' bi-cone roller bit first introduced in 1908.
Source: Houston Museum of Science

Hughes quickly applied for two US patents describing his invention in great detail. While waiting for the patent approval, Hughes set forth to test his ideas. He had a prototype of the bit manufactured and set out to test it on a difficult oil well at Goose Creek, Texas. This experiment ultimately proved to be very successful with the bit drilling through 14 ft of hard rock within 11 hours. This astonishing feat earned the bit the name “Rock Eater.”

The story behind the origin of the tool’s invention, however, remains somewhat ambiguous as different individuals and companies over the years have come forward to contest the invention’s provenance.

However, Hughes' quick wit and legal training were instrumental in helping him realize that patents were the only real-world claim to any invention.

By 1909, the US Patent Office had granted him the patents to the drill-bit invention, securing his claim as the sole inventor of the tool. Having secured the patents, Hughes and Sharp co-founded the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company in 1909.

Read Part 2 here.

For Further Reading

Howard Hughes Sr. Changed Oil Industry, and Houston, Forever by Mark Collette. Houston Chronicle.

Carl Baker and Howard Hughes by B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. American Oil & Gas Historical Society.

Howard Hughes Invention, PBS.

Hughes Two-Cone Drill Bit, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Hughes, Howard Robard, Sr. by R.C. Gano. Texas State Historical Society.