Updated: Jan 12, 2022
By John C. Alsedek:
Pretty much everyone is familiar with Bill Nye, the mechanical engineer-turned television presenter who has, since the early 1990s, built an outstanding career out of making science fun for kids and adults alike. But did you know that Nye wasn’t the first one to introduce scientific methods via easily done experiments to households nationwide. No, that honor belongs to the man who was Nye’s inspiration. That man was Don Herbert, otherwise known to millions as "Mr. Wizard."
My first exposure to Mr. Wizard was very much second-hand: a funny, throwaway line in the 1984 cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, when the titular character corrects one of his companions who mistakes the film’s villain for the television great. It’s understandable that I didn’t know about him, I guess. I mean, he went off the air (the first time) the same year I was born, and I was in my late teens when he made his big comeback. But I honestly wish I’d found out about him sooner, because Herbert was . . . something else—and I mean that in the best way.
Born in Waconia, Minnesota, in 1917, Don Herbert was pursuing his twin interests of science and acting at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) when the U.S. entered World War II. Herbert enlisted in the army, transferred to the army air force, and eventually became a B-24 bomber pilot who flew 56 combat missions, reaching the rank of captain and earning both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three gold clusters. On his discharge in 1945, Herbert moved to Chicago and worked as an actor on children’s radio shows such as It’s Your Life; this experience was to become the acorn from which Mr. Wizard would grow.
In 1950, Herbert had his format worked out and began pitching it to Chicago-area television stations, with NBC affiliate WNBQ picking it up. Watch Mr. Wizard premiered on March 3rd, 1951, as a weekly thirty-minute live program, with Herbert (as Mr. Wizard) and a boy or girl (generally child actors so that they’d be used to working on-camera) performing a wide variety of general science experiments, all of which could be replicated by the home audience. Watch Mr. Wizard was a hit, with the show being carried live or via kinescope on nearly 100 TV stations nationwide by 1954. It also spawned Mr. Wizard Science Clubs, which numbered an astonishing 50,000 throughout North America by the time Watch Mr. Wizard went off the air in 1965. All told, Herbert did 547 live broadcasts, garnering praise from the National Science Foundation and American Chemical Society for bringing science into the American mainstream; he also won a Peabody Award in 1953.
But that was just the beginning for Mr. Wizard. In 1971, the show returned to NBC for a year as Mr. Wizard, airing on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) as well since it was being produced at CJOH-TV in Ottawa, Ontario. A decade later, Herbert came back for a third run with Mr. Wizard’s World.
Mr. Wizard’s World was produced for Nickelodeon, which was in 1983 an up-and-coming kids cable network. Filmed in Calgary, Alberta, Mr. Wizard’s World continued Herbert’s tried and true formula of teaching children about science via fun experiments that they could do at home while introducing a few new segments such as "Ask Mr. Wizard," where viewers could write in with questions for Herbert. From the start, Mr. Wizard’s World was one of Nickelodeon’s most popular programs, rating as high as 3rd overall among the network’s shows. Herbert produced a total of 78 episodes before Mr. Wizard’s World was cancelled in 1989; however, the show remained in rotation on Nick at Nite until 1995, on Cable in the Classroom until 2000, and on The Science Channel until 2006!
However, Don Herbert had long since found a new home, as he began Teacher to Teacher with Mr. Wizard in 1994. Now in his mid-seventies, Herbert did a whole new series consisting of 15-minute episodes that highlighted elementary science teachers and their class projects from around the country. The show was funded by the National Science Foundation and aired on Nickelodeon.
Herbert passed away on June 12th, 2007, at the age of 89, leaving behind a remarkable legacy in science. His Mr. Wizard programs and other projects—including well over 500 short films on scientific subjects that were produced for classroom use—had made an indelible mark on American culture. Shows such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy and Mythbusters owe a big debt to Herbert, one they very willingly acknowledge. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters dedicated a special two-hour episode to Mr. Wizard, and Nye (who often cited Herbert as his inspiration) wrote the following for his obituary:
“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.”
And speaking of scientific minds who had a major influence on how science was perceived in American culture, we’ll be talking about the late, great Carl Sagan next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.