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TV's Mr. Wizard Touched the Daily Lives of Generations of Kids with the Magic of Science

In the early years of television, Don Herbert explained principles of science to millions of American youngsters and established himself as one of America's great science educators, even though he wasn't a classroom teacher, and never earned an advanced degree.

"Watch Mr. Wizard. That's what all the kids in the neighborhood call him," said the announcer each week, "because he shows them the magic and mystery of science in everyday living."

For 15 years in the 1950s and '60s, Watch Mr. Wizard was the best-known science show on American television.

In almost 700 episodes, Mr. Wizard gave young viewers and their parents a kaleidoscopic introduction to scientific principles

"Watch Mr. Wizard" wasn't America's first TV science program. But - speaking from his home in California - TV's Mr. Wizard, 89-year-old Don Herbert, said his show was different.

"First of all, it was aimed at a 12-year-old child. And the child was on the air with me, in fact, was a very important element of the show. I tried doing sort of Mr. Wizard by myself and was very unhappy with it. And adding the child to react and ask questions made all the difference in the world."

In one 1964 episode, for example, Mr. Wizard used a pan full of popcorn with a hole punched in the lid to help explain to young Alan Howard the concept of probability.

HERBERT: "I want you to predict how many kernels of popcorn will come out the hole."
HOWARD: "Well how can I do that?"
HERBERT: "Well, I don't know. You're going to have- You think any will come out at all?'
HOWARD: "Some might, but I can't really tell. They're all different. You can't really trace which way one popcorn's going to go."
HERBERT: 'No, but that's a very serious scientific problem. And you and I are going to attempt, before you leave today, to predict the unpredictable."

Don Herbert had some science background before doing Mr. Wizard, but his main interest was in drama, and he acted in children's radio shows. During World War II he was a bomber pilot.

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Wizard was the way scientific principles were illustrated with ordinary household objects - a phonograph or light bulb or drinking straw. In one show, from 1962, cut-out sections of paper plates made an optical illusion that baffled his young assistant, Rita McLaughlin.

HERBERT: "When I put this down here, you said that this one was longest."
McLAUGHLIN: "But it is, you can see even see it."
HERBERT: "And when I put it up here, you say that one's the longest."
McLAUGHLIN: "Maybe they're probably tricks."
HERBERT: "They certainly are, because these are exactly the same size. Look. But before I explain why this happens -"
McLAUGHLIN: "They're equal!"
HERBERT: "- I want to show you how you can make one of these at home. It's very simple."

"Using everyday equipment made it [science] something that children should not be afraid of," Herbert recently recalled. "If you used scientific equipment that's strange to the child, it's not going to help him or her understand."

Mr. Wizard inspired legions of fans. Kids joined thousands of Mr. Wizard clubs and did some of the same experiments they had seen on television. And many young viewers went on to careers in science, including Mel Schiavelli, organic chemist, and now president of Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania. He remembers that Mr. Wizard wasn't just about having fun with cool experiments.

"You know, you can do things and say, gee whiz, wow. But the real question is why. And he always managed to convey in really simple terms, what the science was behind that," he recalled. "And I think, you know, he had that uncanny knack of being able to do that."

Watch Mr. Wizard was full of solid scientific principles, but Don Herbert told me that they never lost sight of the importance what it would take to keep the young audience interested. "As a matter of fact, our primary objective in putting the show together was to have fun exploring some stuff in science."

Don Herbert as Mr. Wizard stayed on television for another couple of decades after the original, award-winning show ended in 1965. Watch Mr. Wizard lives on, in the hearts of young-viewers-turned-scientists, and on DVD and at his website, MrWizardStudios.com, where you can watch excerpts of the show

Reporter Art Chimes was also influenced by Don Herbert. Today he hosts Our World, VOA's weekly science program.

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here

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