Monday, June 18, 2007

Mr. Wizard and the Twenty-First Century

Don Herbert has died. But the spirit of Mr. Wizard lives on.

If you were a boy with a mechanical or scientific bent, the 1950s and early 1960s were a kind of golden age. Politicians who feared that the Soviet Union was producing more scientists and engineers than we were poured money into all kinds of educational programs designed to attract young men (sorry, women weren't considered) into technical fields. And one of the most popular TV children's programs in 1955 starred a nerdy-looking guy in a white shirt and tie who, in his clipped Minnesotan speech, led a child each Saturday morning through the wonders of science by letting them do fun stuff on camera.

I just managed to watch Mr. Wizard (that was the name of the program, actually, Watch Mr. Wizard) for its last couple of seasons, in 1964 and 1965. As vividly as some people remember near-death experiences, I can see in my mind's eye Mr. Wizard's guest of the hour (Jimmy or Timmy, names didn't matter) as he poured steamy-looking liquid nitrogen over a pan full of shiny liquid mercury, transforming it into a hard block with a crinkled surface like aluminum foil. I can remember the boy's expression of delight as he slid a light bulb along a model high-voltage transmission line that spanned the length of the studio, showing why high voltage is needed to send electricity long distances. I wanted with all my heart to be that boy, and in large measure, the rest of my professional life formed itself around that desire.

I suppose I might have become an engineer without Mr. Wizard's help, but his demonstrations of the cool things you could do with science and technology was probably the most powerful incentive I had at the critical age of ten or twelve. My family knew no scientists or engineers, I was years away from my first proper science class, and I had read all the books and encyclopedia articles about science that I could get my hands on. But reading about science is to doing it as reading about swimming is to swimming, or any other pleasureable physical activity you care to name. At least during the sacred half-hour that Don Herbert ruled the airwaves, I could do experiments vicariously, take mental notes of the apparatus he used, and plague my mother to take me to Radio Shack where I could spend my carefully hoarded allowance on things like voltmeters and potentiometers.

A little-known line in the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a 300,000-member professional organization, says that it is the duty of engineers "to improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences." Although he wasn't an engineer, Don Herbert, who died last week at the age of 89, improved the understanding of technology and science for millions of young people, not by writing a textbook, or by discovering anything new, but by using the power of the then-new medium of television to show fun, neat things to a child who was the same age as his target audience. Herbert, whose background included training in both education and theater, was forced by the personal, intimate nature of the medium to contrive a dramatic narrative that would believably hold the attention of a twelve-year-old boy for close to thirty minutes. This was no easy task, but over his years of practice he brought his peculiar style of theater to a consummate level that has never been surpassed. And as his Los Angeles Times obituary noted, countless engineers and scientists whose careers are now in full flower cite Mr. Wizard as an important influence.

Of course, he and his show were a creature of their time. To the best of my recollection, Watch Mr. Wizard used no music except for intro and closing themes; there were no costumes, rock bands, or other show-business paraphernalia. I imagine that if I watched a kinescope copy of an old show today, I would be disappointed by the crude production values compared to present-day television. But the same kind of kid-centered technology programming can be found these days, especially on public television, which hosts a reality show called Design Squad. Each week, two teams of high school students (generally about equal numbers of boys and girls, I'm happy to note) tackle a task that a professional engineer has come up with, and face a two-day deadline to complete it. In one episode, the job was to take some old tricycles and the motor from a hand drill and build the best drag racer you could in forty-eight hours. Unlike most reality shows, which specialize in showcasing the baser sides of human nature as the losers get dissed by everybody else, the tone of Design Squad is friendly and positive, at least judging by the reviews I have read. Losing teams even have the decency to congratulate the winners. Young people model their own behavior on the way they see people act on TV, and so it's good to know there is at least one show that portrays teenagers as responsible, ingenious, and polite to each other.

I don't know how Design Squad has fared in the ratings. My suspicion is it will continue as long as its producers can maintain their funding from a variety of sources interested in increasing the number of young people interested in science and engineering: corporations like Intel and institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the IEEE. But Don Herbert did it in a free-market way, convincing networks and sponsors that kids would want to watch his show. And they did. And on the whole, I think the world is a better place because of it.

Sources: The Los Angeles Times obituary of Don Herbert can be found at,0,7656221.story. The IEEE Code of Ethics can be found at The Design Squad website is at More information about Don Herbert and his career can be found at the website operated by Mr. Wizard Studios at

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