Mr. Wizard

Mr Wizard by Charlie Williams

Don Herbert (1917 – 2007) was the creator and host of educational television programs for children devoted to science and technology, notably ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ (1951–65, 1971–72) and ‘Mr. Wizard’s World’ (1983–90). He also produced many short video programs about science and authored several popular books about science for children. Marcel LaFollette of the Smithsonian notes that no fictional hero was able to rival the popularity and longevity of ‘the friendly, neighborly scientist.’

In Herbert’s obituary, Bill Nye wrote, ‘Herbert’s techniques and performances helped create the United States’ first generation of homegrown rocket scientists just in time to respond to Sputnik. He sent us to the moon. He changed the world.’ Herbert is credited with turning ‘a generation of youth’ in the 1950s and early 1960s onto ‘the promise and perils of science.’

Born in Waconia, Minnesota, Herbert was a general science and English major at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse who was interested in drama. His career as an actor was interrupted by WWII when he enlisted in the Army as a Private. Herbert later joined the Air Force, took pilot training, and became a B-24 bomber pilot who flew 56 combat missions from Italy with the 767th Bomb Squadron. When Herbert was discharged in 1945 he was a Captain and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

After the war Herbert worked at a radio station in Chicago where he acted in children’s programs such as the documentary health series ‘It’s Your Life.’ It was during this time that Herbert formulated the idea of ‘Mr. Wizard’ and a general science experiments show that used the new medium of television. Herbert’s idea was accepted by Chicago NBC station WNBQ and the series ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ premiered in 1951. The weekly half-hour live television show featured Herbert as Mr. Wizard and either a boy or a girl with whom Herbert performed interesting science experiments. The experiments, many of which seemed impossible at first glance, were usually simple enough to be re-created by viewers.

The show was very successful with 547 live episodes created before it was canceled in 1965. The program won a Peabody Award in 1953. LaFollette notes that, ‘At its peak, ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ drew about eight hundred thousand viewers per episode, but it had an even wider impact. By 1956 over five thousand ‘Mr. Wizard Science Clubs’ had been established, with total membership over a hundred thousand. Teachers incorporated program themes into their classes, and ‘Mr. Wizard’ science kits, books, and other product tie-ins filled the holiday gift lists of countless children.’

Professors of teaching Cory Buxton and Eugene Provenzo place ‘Mr. Wizard’ in a 19th Century tradition of ‘hands-on kitchen science’ associated with Michael Faraday’s popular science lectures and Arthur Good’s collection of experiments for children, ‘La Science Amusante’ (1893). In turn, LaFollette has written on the legacy of Herbert and other early innovators of science television, ‘Production approaches that are now standard practice on ‘NOVA’ and the ‘Discovery Channel’ derive, in fact, from experimentation by television pioneers like Lynn Poole and Don Herbert and such programs as ‘Adventure, Zoo Parade,’ ‘Science in Action,’ and the Bell Telephone System’s science specials. These early efforts were also influenced by television’s love of the dramatic, refined during its first decade and continuing to shape news and public affairs programming, as well as fiction and fantasy, today.’

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