Is He Howard Hughes, V2.0?

Article posted: July 25th, 2016

If Elon Musk didn't exist, then you and I both know that Hollywood would have to invent him.

In fact, Hollywood has already borrowed or at least been inspired by his life story. It has reportedly been glamorized by Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of fictional eccentric billionaire Tony Stark – which is said to have been modeled on the life and enigma of the persona of Elon Musk.

Here's what you may not know about Mr. Musk: Born in apartheid-era South Africa, Elon Musk sold his first business before he was a teenager. It was a computer game he'd created to fund an operation that sold candy to classmates. He later attended college in North America. He first studied at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a bachelor's degree in physics. Then he left graduate school at Stanford after just two days.

Musk's passion is reputed to lie predominantly in three areas: the internet, renewable energy and space exploration.

The Internet: He started by cofounding Zip2, an online city-guide company, in 1995. Later, Compaq bought it for $307 million. At this point, you'd spend a year or so soaking up rays on a Caribbean beach or lounging in Las Vegas nightclubs, but Elon almost immediately cofounded, an online financial-services company that merged into what would become PayPal.

Outer space: Eventually eBay acquired PayPal, giving Elon the assets needed to "shoot for the moon." That's when he cofounded SpaceX in 2002, a new aerospace technology company with the pedestrian goal of colonizing Mars.

Clean energy: Shortly after cofounding SpaceX, he got involved with electric-car manufacturer Tesla Motors and clean-energy provider SolarCity.

When not founding companies, he's often in Washington, D.C. lobbying for action on policy issues relevant to his passion-fueled causes of renewable energy, climate change and space exploration.

The Hughes Legacy

If you aren't a Leonardo DiCaprio fan or business-history student, then you may not know much about Howard Hughes. This son of a Texas hardware manufacturer, who turned into a film producer and also turned into an aviation and avionic technology pioneer was one of the titans of 20th century business.

Born on Christmas Eve in 1905, Hughes left school at an early age to take over the family business following the death of his father. Hughes Tool Company was a successful firm, and Hughes could have easily coasted on that success for life. As you can guess, he didn't.

In his early 20s, Hughes set out to make a mark on Hollywood and made films throughout the 1920s and '30s, eventually controlling an entire movie studio in the 1940s. Several of his films received Academy Award nominations. Not content with Hollywood domination, Hughes also dabbled in real-estate development and had a particularly strong hold in Las Vegas, where he was a famed property baron in his later years.

Hughes is probably best remembered for his feats in air travel. The rundown of his success in aviation looks something like this:

•He founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, an aerospace project and defense contracting firm.

•Next he designed the Hughes H-1 Racer, which broke the world speed record for a land airplane in 1935.

•He then set the transcontinental airspeed record in 1937 and beat the round-the-world flight record in 1938.

•Subsequently, he took a majority stake in TransWorld Airlines, the eventual sale of which netted him over $500 million (back in the 1960s when $500 million was just about an inconceivable fortune). Throughout his tenure in both business and aviation, he pushed for technical innovation ideas in aviation.

Hughes also founded the Hughes Medical Institute, which still exists, specializing in medical research. He was also a notorious playboy, which only served to build both his fame and his cryptically contradictory reputation.

Companions in Innovation?

You can see that the similarities are obvious. Both Musk and Hughes have patterns of moving into cutting-edge industries and dominating them with ideas for new inventions.

They have also both sought partnerships with the government. Much of Hughes' work was spent on American war efforts, and Musk's SpaceX has a huge ongoing partnership with NASA to operate private space flights to the International Space Station.

Additionally, they were both restless. Both Hughes and Musk could have stopped at any point in their career and have others consider them successful by any normal standard. Instead of settling for comfortable wealth, they both pushed themselves and those around them to do better; the world is better off as a result. Just as aviation indelibly changed our world, clean energy and space travel will help to form the entire tangent of the 21st century.

Where The Roads Diverge

Some striking differences between the two may lead us all to dismiss too much of a close comparison. But perhaps they aren’t to be compared – just considered in the same genre of innovator. Their contexts also are as distinct as you’d expect with a half century between them and their contemporaries.

Hughes came of age in a time when the American dream seemed or was at least popularly hyped as inevitable. He revolutionized entertainment and aviation. He saw the monster that was the Second World War and his aviation technology partook somewhat in the economic slipstream that the horrific conflict created. By contrast, Musk's drive could be speculated to come from an understanding of how dire and deceptively immediate climate change is, and the forethought that we may one day have to inhabit other planets if wish to survive as a species. Whatever his private drivers may have been, Howard Hughes' external empire was built on expanding land and energy use. Elon Musk's innovation is about clean electricity and conservation – the inevitable and necessary contraction back to reality after the hyper-aggressive expansion that the globalization of the late 20th century induced.

What would Hughes have done if he had been Musk’s contemporary? Or vice versa? Theoretical questions with curious twists of ‘what if’ logic. And what's next for Musk? Undoubtedly the world is watching the space his next ideas will manifest within.


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