I happened to glance at the recent NY Times obituary of Wilber Huston, Jr., who passed away at the ripe, old age of 93. What drew my attention was the obit’s headline, calling Huston America’s ‘brightest boy.’
Spurred on by Thomas Edison’s lament in 1929 that "….not enough students were choosing careers in science and engineering, Huston and others youngsters ‘competed’ for a four-year, all expenses paid college education courtesy of the ‘wizard of Menlo Park.’ Edison assembled an historical ‘dream team’ of judges that included Henry Ford, George Eastman, Harvey S. Firestone and Charles A. Lindbergh.
Huston, a Washington state native, bested competitors from around the country in an oral exam delivered by Edison himself that included questions in math, physics, chemistry, cultural and moral issues (i.e. "When do you consider a lie permissible?"). As the winner of the novel competition, Huston was heralded as ‘America’s smartest boy.’ (Note: girls were not invited to compete). Huston leveraged his notoriety to build a successful, lifelong career in the sciences, ending up as a rocket scientist.
Besides my fascination with all things historical, what caught my attention to the Huston-Edison story were the parallels to today. As everyone knows, many leaders from both the public and private sector are rightly concerned about the lack of interest in science and engineering by today’s youth. Worrying that countries like India and China will leapfrog the US in terms of global competitiveness if we don’t stem the tide, organizations like the Society of Women Engineers are holding "science is fun" days for middle school girls. And major multinationals like Siemens are reaching out to inner city classrooms to generate interest among urban boys and girls through Siemens Science Days.
I have no doubt we need such programs to attract the next generation’s best and brightest to pursue careers in math and science. But isn’t it comforting to know that ‘shining lights’ like Edison (pun intended btw) worried about the same issue 77 years ago? And if my memory serves me right, the U.S. didn’t fare too badly in the 20th century. Here’s hoping for a similar result in the 21st century.