‘Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ (The Avengers, 2012) – the assured words of Tony Stark’s self-identification are comparable to the impressive historical figure of American inventor Howard Hughes. In fact, the character of Tony Stark and his father (also named Howard) have been confirmed to have been inspired by Hughes’ life and achievements. Born in 1905, the son of a successful inventor and businessman in Texas, Hughes demonstrated an early interest in technology which would sustain itself in his ventures throughout his life and contribute significantly to the United States as we know it today.
After losing both parents by the age of 19 and inheriting a large portion of the considerable family fortune, Hughes was able to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in filmmaking. He won an Academy Award for Two Arabian Knights in 1928 and received nominations for multiple other films. His $3.8 million production of the aviation film Hell’s Angels (1930) was originally produced as a silent film, but Hughes insisted on extending production to include sound. This was an important decision in consolidating his undeniable influence in the early days of Hollywood and today the film is widely recognised as one of the first sound-action films.
Hughes famously suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and in 1958 he locked himself in a film studio’s screening room for more than four months, a memorable and disturbing incident which is relayed effectively in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004). The film delves into Hughes’ personal and professional life between 1927-1947 and takes a particular focus on Hughes’ considerable aviation exploits.
Despite encountering four serious separate flying injuries, Hughes was extremely successful in his aviation endeavours. In 1932 he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and began work on building his first private custom aircraft – the Hughes H-1 Racer. This plane would go on to break the airspeed record in 1935 and in July 1938, Hughes set the record for his round-the-world flight – completed in 3 days, 19 hours and 17 minutes. Not only was Hughes making history in the world of cinema, but in the world of aviation as well.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Miami, Florida was launched in 1953 as a result of Hughes’ personal interest in science. In 1966, Hughes moved to live in Las Vegas and purchased numerous casinos, giving him immense influence in the state of Nevada before his death in 1976. He is credited as having written: ‘I like to think of Las Vegas in terms of a well-dressed man in a dinner jacket and a beautifully jewelled and furred female getting out of an expensive car’ – a statement that displays just one of many of Hughes’ considerable contributions to modern America.