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Mr. Wizard, TV's Original Science Guy: Highly Experimental Stuff

Entertainment | July 3, 2019

Don Herbert a.k.a. Mr. Wizard. Sources: National Museum of American History; Wikimedia Commons

For decades, Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard, wowed American youngsters with science. Watch Mr. Wizard's demonstrations of chemistry and physics, often using household objects, drew millions of young viewers on Saturday mornings -- yes, after toiling in school Monday through Friday, kids would tune in to watch science on a Saturday. Herbert's science show aired continually from 1951-65, and was revived in the '70s on Canadian TV and again in the '80s on Nickelodeon. Bill Nye, "The Science Guy," a latter day Mr. Wizard, wrote about his predecessor:

Mr. Wizard was television’s original science teacher, the first guy to use television to teach. His relaxed manner and the quality of his demonstrations made him a household word. ... Don Herbert’s techniques and performances helped create the United States’s first generation of homegrown rocket scientists just in time to respond to Sputnik. He sent us to the Moon. He changed the world.

In college, Don Herbert majored in education with a focus in general science and English, then went to New York to pursue a career as an actor on Broadway. His acting career was put on hold when he joined the army as the United States entered World War II. When he was discharged in 1945, he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He then acted on children’s radio shows, such as a documentary health series, It’s Your Life, at a station in Chicago. He had the idea for Watch Mr. Wizard to teach science to children. The show was picked up by an NBC affiliate, and Watch Mr. Wizard premiered on March 3, 1951.

Mr. Wizard's Run

Wikimedia commons

The weekly live show drew a large audience and ran until 1965, in the process winning a Peabody Award and the Thomas Alva Edison Mass Media Awards. It was revived from 1971-72. He later developed a show with a faster pace, Mr. Wizard’s World, that aired on Nickelodeon from 1983-1990.

Try This at Home

Left: Mr. Wizard and a lucky kid playing with fire. Right: A message from a frustrated would-be fan. Sources: Houston Chronicle; National Museum of American History

Although the show warned kids that they should only try the experiments at home under the supervision of a responsible adult, they were things that they could replicate at home.

The aim of the show was to teach kids about the science of everyday life. For example, he taught how cakes rise and how to cook a hotdog by electrocuting it. He also used everyday objects to explain scientific principles. He used a coffee pot to show how water evaporates, becomes clouds, and eventually falls as rain. During the live show, he had a young viewer from the audience assist him as he completed the experiment. He then taught viewers about the “why” of the experiment. It relied on scientific curiosity rather than one-liners, and each show began with a simple scientific question that they then addressed.

He was a Teacher

Source: peabodyawards.com

Herbert did not dress in a lab coat, which allowed him to be more accessible. He also did not try to create a zany character to draw viewers, but simply used his genuine enthusiasm about science and his ease with talking to children. He made sure that, in addition to the wow factor of the experiment, he always returned to teaching the young audience about science.

Because the show was live, the experiments did not always go as planned.

His Legacy

He wrote books and inspired other science products. Source: (amazon)

During his career, he also appeared on the first episode of Late Night with David Letterman and was featured in magazines, including Time. He inspired many young people to develop an interest in science and more than 5,000 Mr. Wizard Science Clubs formed. Herbert died in 2007, but his legacy continued.

He inspired Steve Spangler, who has become a national figure because of his science experiments, especially his oft replicated Mentos and Diet Coke experiment. Bill Nye was also influenced by Mr. Wizard. After Herbert’s death, an episode of MythBusters was dedicated to him. Herbert’s notes were entered into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Archive Center in 2015.


Tags: Mr. Wizard | TV In The 1950s | TV In The 1960s | What Did He Do?...

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!