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His Youth Brightened by Edison, Physicist Reached for the Stars

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Before SATs, before Advanced Placement tests, before academic quiz shows, before self-conscious grooming of résumés by teenagers, there was Wilber B. Huston, "the brightest boy" of 1929.

Huston, a 16-year-old high school senior from Seattle, bested thousands of boys across the nation and prevailed in a face-to-face interview with some of the greatest scientists, industrialists and academics of the era to win an all-expenses paid scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His timing was perfect. The scholarship was awarded just three months before the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. And it came about almost by chance. Huston's grandfather read in the newspaper that the 82-year-old world-famous inventor Thomas A. Edison decided to encourage American boys to study science by sponsoring a scholarship contest. "This is a great opportunity for Bill. See that he applies," Huston's maternal grandfather wrote to his son-in-law.

Newspapers called it Edison's search for a successor and "a quest for genius." Huston, who died May 25 after a 32-year career as a physicist with NASA, may or may not have been a genius, but he became a mission director at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where his team launched the Nimbus meteorological satellites, which have made significant contributions to earth science.

In 1929, Huston was a skinny, bespectacled son of an Episcopal bishop who spent his boyhood moving from his birthplace of Detroit to Cheyenne, Wyo., Baltimore and San Antonio before his father settled in Seattle. He had skipped two grades, built a crystal radio set at 10, enjoyed marine biology and competed on his school's fencing team. He planned to go to the state university and hadn't applied for admission to MIT because he knew the $1,100 annual cost was too much for his father.

For the Edison contest, he won the right to represent the state of Washington by acing the entrance exam for the University of Washington. In July 1929, he boarded a train for the three-day, four-night cross-country trip to compete for the prize.

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."

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