Better Oil Drill Bit (Tricone Rotary Rock Drill)

A drill bit sounds relatively petty compared to the other inventions on this list. Granted, it’s not Watt’s condensing steam engine, Edison’s long-lasting lightbulb, Tesla’s induction motor or the Wright Brothers airplane. But Hughes drill bit dramatically lowered the cost of drilling for oil. It also opened previously unavailable oil fields where oil reserves lay beneath rock. This enabled low-cost fuel for the burgeoning auto industry.

Howard Hughes, Sr. partnered with Walter Sharp in 1902 to drill for oil in Texas. Like everybody else, they became frustrated that their drill bits kept breaking. They worked on innovating a better bit in 1906, achieved a dramatically better one in 1908, patented it in 1909. Eventually, they quit drilling to start their drill bit company, Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. Sharp died in 2012 and Hughes bought out his interest. Howard Sr. died in 1924 and his son bought out the interest he didn’t own.

Hughes Jr., the billionaire, never showed an interest in the drill bit company. He used the cash flow to focus on movies, aircraft, and developing Las Vegas. Hughes tool dominated the oil bit market in its heyday. Even today, it continues to hold a strong market share (after merging with Baker International to become Baker Hughes International in 1987).