The mind of a child is very impressionable. Like a sponge, things seen or heard are absorbed as a memory which can influence them for years to come. Maureen Healy an award-winning author and leader in the field of children’s emotional health, says children up to the age of eight are the most impressionable. Up to this point, they cannot distinguish what is seen on television or in video games from reality.
Baby boomers didn’t have video games growing up but we had television. Boomers were the first generation to be raised with television and because of that it influenced a lot of us.
Just like yesterday I can remember TV shows from my early years which kept me entertained and captivated for hours. Everything from cartoons, westerns and science fiction shows started my imagination juices to flow.
One show I really enjoyed was fun plus educational. Years before Bill Nye the Science Guy, Steve Spangler, Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson there was Don Herbert. He was the prototype for a whole species of pop-science teachers to come. Who was Don Herbert? None other than Mr. Wizard.
Born on July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota, Herbert was a general science and English major at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. He was also interested in drama. After WWII began he joined the Army. Herbert later joined the United States Army Air Forces, took pilot training, and became a B-24 bomber pilot. He flew 56 combat missions from Italy with the 767th Bomb Squadron, 461st Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. 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 got a job at a radio station in Chicago where he acted in children’s programs such as the documentary health series, ” It’s Your Life.” (1949) During this time Herbert came up with the idea of Mr. Wizard and a general science experiments show that used the new medium of television. He pitched his idea to the Chicago NBC station WNBQ and the series Watch Mr. Wizard premiered on March 3, 1951.
From 1951 to 1965, Herbert hosted “Watch Mr. Wizard,” a half-hour weekly show. Broadcast from his garage studio. During the 547 episodes the show unlocked the wonders of science for myself plus other youngsters of the 1950s and ’60s.
Each show had Mr. Wizard with either a boy or a girl performing interesting science experiments. What was great about the show were the experiments, many of which seemed impossible at first glance, but were usually simple enough to be re-created by viewers.
The program was very successful with viewers and critics. The program even won a Peabody Award in 1953.
With any popular show comes fan mail and this show received thousands of letters. In 1952, he received a letter from a group of young viewers in Jacksonville, Florida, who wanted to start a Mr. Wizard Science club.
The club, which met at one of the boys’ houses, tried to replicate Herbert’s experiments. Herbert’s publicity team wrote them back, sending the group a set of membership cards and a charter. The correspondence between the fans and Herbert lasted years. Before long more clubs formed. Those fan clubs would eventually number 100,000 members, according to an NBC promotional article from the time.
Herbert’s style, creativity and delivery made a profound impression on young viewers, as did his use of everyday materials in his experiments. That’s what made me look forward to his show each week. The show was a mesmerizing experience. Watching science experiments from his garage was very relatable and down to earth. What could be more relatable than watching experiments out of a garage? When you watched Mr. Wizard, it was as if you were visiting him at home. At the start of each show, a kid just like you would stop by his house and, together, the three of you (it felt as if you were right there with him) would go through a series of household science demonstrations.
Don Herbert once said, “Why has there been such rapid growth in reliable knowledge in recent times? The increasing use of scientific experiments is one of the main reasons for this growth. Many so-called facts had been believed to be true for thousands of years, yet were not true at all. What is new in recent times is the understanding that “facts” are not really facts until they have been tested. And one of the best ways to do that is to design an experiment that tests the truth or falsity of the idea. How does one learn to do experiments? By doing many of them, of course. The experiments need not be complicated; in fact, simple ones are best for learning.”
Over the years Mr. Wizard’s experiments covered subjects from plants, senses, water, surface tension, air pressure, carbon dioxide, bicycles, flying earth satellites, gravity, magnetism, static electricity, electric current, light and sight, mirrors, heat, and sound.
Some of Mr. Wizard’s experiments:
1. Fill a milk bottle with water through a double layer of cheesecloth covering it’s top. Turn the bottle upside down in the sink. Air pressure keeps the water from coming out.
2. Place a book on a balloon and blow into it. This creates high pressure from your body which lifts the book. Cars are lifted by air pressure in garages in a similar way.
3. Drop a small amount of lit paper in the bottle and cap it with a hard boiled egg. After several seconds, the flame in the bottle will go out and the egg will be pushed down into the bottle with a satisfying pop. This is an example of Amonton’s Law. The fire heats the air inside the milk bottle, which in turn causes that air to expand and exit the bottle. The fire eventually extinguishes itself, and the air in the bottle cools and contracts, thus lowering the air pressure in the bottle. (Remember, not all of the air leaves the bottle during heating, so what is left inside is at a lower pressure than the air outside the bottle.) Because the air pressure outside the bottle is greater than inside the bottle, the egg gets pushed in!
After the “Watch Mr. Wizard” went off the air in 1965, Herbert produced eight films in a series called Experiment: The Story of a Scientific Search; these aired on public television in 1966. In the same year, Herbert produced the Science 20 series, which were 20-minute films of experiments that were designed for classroom use.
The show was briefly revived in the 1971–1972 season as Mr. Wizard, produced in Canada. In 1983 Herbert developed Mr. Wizard’s World, a faster-paced version of his show from the 50s-60s that aired three times per week on the cable channel Nickelodeon. The show ran until 1990.
The Mr. Wizard shows inspired many budding scientists. During the 1960s and ’70s, about half the applicants to Rockefeller University in New York, where students work toward doctorates in science and medicine, cited Mr. Wizard when asked how they first became interested in science.
David Letterman was a big fan. On his first show February 1, 1982 on NBC his guests were Bill Murray and Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert performing an experiment involving air compression.
After Don Herbert’s death in 2007 many tributes came forth honoring his many years of educating the youth all over the world. In an obituary that ran in the Los Angeles Times, he got a message from someone who’s followed in his footsteps: the science educator Bill Nye. He wrote the following, “If any of you reading now have been surprised and happy to learn a few things about science watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” keep in mind, it all started with Don Herbert . . . he changed the world.”
Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, principals of the television program MythBusters (2002–2016), have been described as being “reverent” of Herbert’s work as Mr. Wizard. Five months after Herbert died, MythBusters aired a two-hour episode entitled “Special Super-sized Myths” “Dedicated to Mr. Wizard.”
Mr. Wizard inspired a generation including myself. I remember taking apart one of the telephones in our house and putting it back together after watching an episode. Later on after college I was hired by AT&T.
His experiments are still being performed today. They can be found in his books, DVDs and YouTube videos. I bet kids today will be as inspired by Mr. Wizard as my generation was.