While much of the Howard Hughes legend has been dramatized in popular media, it remains true that Hughes was extremely versatile and excelled at nearly every role he attempted: filmmaker, engineer, test pilot, real estate developer, airline owner, oilfield consultant, defense contractor, and philanthropist.

A multi-millionaire before his 19th birthday, Hughes would drop out of college and head to California to make movies as a young man. During his days in Hollywood, he became a mainstay in the celebrity gossip columns because of his relationships with high-profile actresses, such as Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Ginger Rogers. As a film tycoon, Hughes began to garner fame in the late 1920s, when he started producing big-budget and often controversial films such as "The Racket," "Hell's Angels," and "Scarface." Later, he established himself as one of the more significant aviators in history. When he wasn't risking his life to test new plane models, he was trying to set new air speed records – at one point owning nearly every signification aviation speed record on the books. Additionally, Hughes was an accomplished builder of planes. He is even credited with designing the very first retractable landing gear. Among his numerous honors and recognitions, Hughes received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1939, was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973, and was posthumously inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame in 1987.

While Hughes never managed to spend much time in college, he did have a brief stint at Cal Tech. Taking after his father, Hughes was a mediocre student at best, and never received a high school diploma. And yet, it was his father's wish for Hughes to attend a four-year university. So, the older man struck a deal with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena: in return for letting his son attend classes at Cal Tech, the older Hughes contributed an undisclosed amount to the school’s scholarship fund. Even though Cal Tech agreed to allow Hughes to attend, it apparently did not go so far as to give him credit for the courses he took. The school has no formal record of Hughes’s attendance. The only indication that he even went there is a brief note in the school’s files that a Cal Tech upperclassman tutored Howard in solid geometry in 1923.

Nearly three decades after Hughes passed away, the Cal Tech campus was still showing signs of influence from the larger-than-life figure. In 2006, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (a non-profit founded by the flamboyant daredevil in 1953) announced that it was awarding $1.5 million to the California Institute of Technology for support of interdisciplinary undergraduate science education programs. In addition, the Hughes-backed grant provided funding for three new undergraduate lab courses at Caltech. To honor the enduring legacy Hughes left behind, the university previously named a professorship in his name: the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science.