If you’re below the age of about 60 you may not know who Howard Hughes is. If you grew up, as I did, in the 60s and 70s you probably remember him as a super rich old weird recluse with long hair, long fingernails, and objectionable bathroom habits.
Some may have been edified about Hughes by Martin Scorsese’s brilliant film The Aviator, a biopic about 20 years in the life of Hughes. That was done in 2004, long before Elon Musk came to his current prominence. But if you look at their careers the similarities are extraordinary.
Hughes, who was born in 1905, was a high tech innovator decades before his time. A media mogul, a celebrity, an aerospace pioneer, a transportation leader, and a man who went up against the establishment time and time again. Sound familiar?
He broke air records for fastest flight around the world, for speed in the air, and bought and sold companies almost on whims. And he was in the cockpit, he wasn’t going to let anybody else have the fun of breaking in the planes he designed.
With Space X, the Twitter buy, Tesla, and other tech projects Musk follows in Hughes’ footsteps nearly a century later. But it just isn’t in achievements, Hughes and Musk share an indomitable obsession to succeed past the odds.
Yes, personally they were very different. Musk seems relatively well adjusted. Hughes was a paranoid germaphobe. It got so bad later in his life that he became a virtual hermit who never left his room, regardless of his riches. Hence the image that followed past his grave.
Hughes had a horrible case of OCD that plagued him when he was at the top of his game. His staff went to great lengths to hide it so as not to scare off investors in any number of his business projects. He squired around a lot of Hollywood starlets and married twice. But his obsessions scuppered those unions. He went so far as to put teenage girls under contract to him and groom them to become his paramours. That didn’t work out either.
But a person is, or should be, remembered for their achievements. As such, both men can claim their own sort of immortality because of how they advanced the world of their times.
Hughes was at the forefront of commercial aviation not only as a designer and pilot, but also as a business titan. He bought TWA and stopped the nationalization of US international air travel. He designed and flew military planes for the Pentagon.
His film techniques in Hell’s Angels and Scarface brought realism to the screen. In the former, the aerial sequences were groundbreaking. He did have his duds. In The Outlaw the star of the film was the cleavage of Jane Russell. Granted, their have been worse storylines.
So when you see and hear all the hoopla surrounding Musk, give a thought or two to the guy who did a lot of it first. Maybe he wasn’t Tony Stark. But in the tech and business realm of the first half of the 20th century, no superhero could compete with his genius.