On 10 July 1917, Donald Herbert Kemske (later known as Donald Jeffry Herbert) was born in Waconia, Minnesota. Back when university educations were a bit more about education and a bit less about establishing vocation, Donald studied general science and English at La Crosse State Normal College (which is now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse). But Donald liked drama, and he became an actor. When World War II broke out, Donald joined the US Air Force, flying over 50 missions as a bomber pilot.
After the war, Donald began to act in children’s programs at a radio station in Chicago. Perhaps it was because of his love of children’s education, perhaps it was the sudden visibility of the power of science, as evidenced by the nuclear bomb, or perhaps something else – but Donald had an idea for a tv show based around general science experiments. And so Watch Mr. Wizard was born on 3 March 1951 on NBC. (When I think about it, I’m surprised at how early this was in the life of television programming). Each week, a young boy or a girl would join Mr. Wizard (played by Donald) on a live tv show, where they would be shown interesting and easily-reproducible science experiments.
Watch Mr. Wizard was the first such tv program, and one might argue that its effects are still felt today. A total of 547 episodes of Watch Mr. Wizard aired. By 1956, over 5000 local Mr. Wizard science clubs had been started around the country; by 1965, when the show was cancelled by NBC, there were more than 50000. In fact, my parents have told me of Mr. Wizard and his fascinating programs. Such was the love and reach of Mr. Wizard that on the first Late Night Show with David Letterman, the guests were Bill Murray, Steve Fessler, and Mr. Wizard. He’s also mentioned in the song Walkin’ On the Sun by Smash Mouth. Were it possible for me to credit the many scientists that certainly owe their
I mention this because the legacy of Mr. Wizard was passed down. Don Herbert passed away on June 12, 2007. In an obituary published a few days later, Bill Nye writes that “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.” Reading the obituary, you cannot help but think that Bill Nye was also inspired to start his show by Mr. Wizard.
In fact, 20 years ago today, on 10 September 1993, the first episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy aired on PBS. It’s much more likely that readers of this blog have heard of Bill Nye; even though production of the show halted in 1998, PBS still airs reruns, and it’s commonly used in schools (did you know it won an incredible 19 Emmys?). I, for one, loved Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I still follow him to this day. I think it is impossible to narrow down the source of my initial interest in science, but I can certainly say that Bill Nye furthered my interest in science and experiments. He made science seem cool and powerful. To be clear, I know science is still cool and powerful, but I’m not so sure that’s the popular opinion. (As an aside: I also think math would really benefit from having our own Bill Nye).