Wilber B. Huston (S.B. 1933) didn't bother to apply to MIT because his family couldn't afford to send him here. That all changed when Thomas A. Edison discovered Huston and gave him a scholarship.
Huston, now 90, reminisced recently about his path to the Institute in light of his milestone 70th reunion this weekend.
As a 16-year-old high school senior in Seattle, he didn't consider MIT because he knew his father couldn't pay the annual charge of $1,100 for tuition, room, board, books and materials. Instead, he planned to attend the University of Washington to study oceanography.
A scholarship contest sponsored by Edison was announced amid national press coverage in the spring of 1929. "The purpose of this scholarship," Edison said, "is to stimulate the interest of the youth of America in mental development, with particular emphasis on scientific matters and more generally in the high ideals that make for the finest type of American manhood." The press dubbed the contest Edison's "quest for genius" or his search for the "brightest boy in America."
"I read about it in the papers but didn't think it had anything to do with me," Huston recalled. "But my grandfather wrote to my dad and said, 'This is a great opportunity for Bill. Make sure he applies.'"
Huston was a finalist selected from thousands of applicants. They took a five-hour exam at Edison's headquarters in West Orange, N.J., in late July. Problems in traditional disciplines like math, physics and chemistry were interspersed with questions intended to test familiarity with historical events and popular trivia and to reveal character. Each contestant met with the judges--Edison, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Lewis Perry (headmaster of Phillips Exeter Academy) and Samuel Stratton (president of MIT).
The judges announced their decision on Aug. 2, 1929. Newsreel cameras, radio crews and the press captured the ceremony as the runners-up were announced, followed by the winner--Huston. He was quickly hoisted onto another contestant's shoulders as the crowd cheered.
During the remainder of his stay, Huston dined with the Edisons and finalized the terms of his scholarship: $2,500 for tuition, $50 at Christmas and round-trip train fare between Seattle and Cambridge at Christmas and in the summer.
Since his financial circumstances had changed, Huston decided he wanted to attend MIT. Although he hadn't applied, the issue was resolved within weeks. "I guess the admissions people decided that in view of the special circumstances, who were they to argue with that distinguished board?" he said.
Edison becomes a fan
Edison undoubtedly approved of Huston's choice. His son, Theodore Edison, attended MIT (S.B. 1923). According to correspondence housed in the MIT archives, in 1905 Edison wrote, "The best school in this country in my opinion is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The men they turn out are the best in the world and practically run our up-to-date industries."
After graduating with a degree in physics, Huston worked for Theodore Edison at Calibron Products for four years. He maintained ties with Edison's widow, Mina, while working for the Moral Rearmament Movement, an interfaith organization. He spent 17 years as an aeronautical researcher at the Langley Research Center, and in 1961 he joined the Nimbus Project, a weather satellite program, at Goddard Space Flight Center. He retired from government service in 1974 and worked as a consultant until 1988.
Looking back, Huston is grateful to the "wizard," as Edison was known, for providing the contest that changed the course of his life. "It's been a great ride!" he said.
Despite recent health problems, Huston plans to return for his reunion, as he has for nine of the past 10 years. Is he devoted to MIT? "I really am," he said. "I had a great time there and I honor it for the kind of thing they do. It's just fantastic."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 2003.