Sunday, June 04, 2006

"Smartest Boy in America" (of 1929) Dies

Wilber Huston and Arthur Williams pose with Thomas Edison
According to his obituary in today's Washington Post,in 1929 Wilber B. Huston passed a written and oral examination given by Thomas Alva Edison. He quit working for Edison a short while after graduation from MIT. After spending some time in evangelical missions for "moral rearmament", Huston went to work for the US government at the start of World War II, spending his career as a rocket scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
In New Jersey, the 49 rivals toured Edison's scientific laboratories, rode through the recently opened Holland Tunnel and visited Coney Island. The four-hour exam at Edison's old battery laboratory covered math, physics, chemistry and "general knowledge." Huston recalled that two questions in the last category included "Who is Jenny Lind?" and "When do you consider a lie permissible?" Most of the boys knew the name of the 19th-century "Swedish Nightingale." A lie is permissible, Huston said, "in case of serious trouble, pain and grief, and you do not benefit yourself in any way."

Ten years later, it was revealed that four other boys finished so close to Huston in the written test that Edison decided to add an oral exam.

No contemporary applicant to Harvard, Stanford or Chicago has faced a panel of judges who compare to those who grilled Huston and his rivals the day after their exam. Besides Edison, they included film-and-camera company founder George Eastman, automaker Henry Ford, industrialist Harvey Firestone, aviator Charles Lindbergh, the headmaster of Phillips Exeter Academy and the president of MIT.

After the quiz, the group immediately announced Huston the winner. A moment of silence was followed by cheers, then the other boys hoisted him on their shoulders. The whole group hustled off to a trip around New York on the mayor's yacht and had dinner in a fancy restaurant. "I was impressed by the dinner as well as the check of which I managed to catch a glimpse: $20.00. (Remember, this was 1929)," Huston said in a family memoir that his son has posted on his Web site.

The student awoke the next morning to a transatlantic telephone call from a London newspaper. Huston's photo was on Page 1 of the New York Times, accompanied by a long article and multiple photos inside the paper. The movie newsreels, having missed the announcement, came to his hotel for interviews. The media, which had created a hullabaloo around the event, dubbed Huston "the smartest boy in America," and unwanted publicity dogged him for years.

Huston, who had planned to study chemical engineering, switched to physics and graduated in 1933. Unable to get a scholarship for graduate school, he went to work for Edison's son but four years later became fascinated with an evangelist's "moral re-armament" crusade. He worked for that campaign until World War II, when the need for scientists pulled him back to his intellectual home. He ended up with NASA and lived in Bowie until after his retirement.

But in that heady first week of August 1929, Edison sent word to Huston that he wished to have dinner with him. Huston arrived at the grand Edison home to a formal family dinner, with servants in attendance.

"The first course was a soup," Huston wrote in his family memoir. "After a few minutes Mr. Edison said something, and everyone laughed. I asked my dinner partner what he had said. 'I see he tasted his soup before he salted it' was the reply. Mr. Edison is famous for saying, 'I have no use for a man who salts his soup before he tastes it.' So I guess I passed both his examinations."
Here's a link to the MIT webpage about the Edison scholarshipThere's also a nice tidbit in the Arizona Republic:
In 1944, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It was there that Huston met his wife, Dorothy Beadle, a mathematician aide. They married in 1946.

Huston's daughter, Kathryn Grant of Fountain Hills, remembers watching her father deciphering calculations at home. He told her he was figuring out how to put satellites up in space and keep them there.