Monday, January 26, 2009

Remembering Mr. Wizard

I recently purchased a Time magazine from Nov. 19, 1951, because I found its full-page ads interesting . . . but while paging through the magazine I was pleasantly surprised to discover an article about Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) who had ties to my hometown of La Crosse. As a kid in the 1950s, I can remember watching Mr. Wizard on TV and regarding his science experiments as fun and cool . . . unlike my drab science classes in school. Herbert was born in Waconia, Minn., but his family later moved to La Crosse and he graduated from La Crosse Central High School in 1935 and La Crosse Teachers College in 1940. Attached below is a reprint of the 1951 Time article which included the above photo. Herbert died of bone cancer at age 89 on June 12, 2007, at his home in Bell Canyon, Calif.

The Truant Teacher
(Reprinted from the Nov. 19, 1951, Time magazine)
Though he is a teacher at heart, Don Herbert hates the dry stuffiness of a classroom as much as any truant schoolboy. On Mr. Wizard, his popular science show for kids (Sat. 5 p.m. NBC-TV), he uses brief, ad lib comment instead of hectoring lectures, everyday objects like balloons and tumblers instead of beakers and fractionating columns, and he would rather conduct his experiments with a potato or a spinning top than with test tubes and Bunsen burners.
Herbert's object is to show his audience (estimated at 850,000) what goes on in the world — why the wind blows, what makes a cake rise, how water comes out of a kitchen tap. To explain rain, he boils water in a coffee pot, compares the steam to clouds, and shows how “rain” will condense on the sides of a glass held over the spout. He demonstrates static electricity with a charged rubber comb, lets it pick up a cluster of cork filings and then release them in a miniature snowstorm the moment they are oppositely charged. Using an infrared ray, he pops pop corn without burning the cellophane container. Last week, Herbert explained the importance of air speed to a pilot, by tying a paper plane to an electric fan and showing how it rose and fell in relation to the speed of the fan.
A graduate of La Crosse (Wis.) State Teachers College in 1940, Herbert soon found himself piloting a B-24 in Italy instead of teaching in a U.S. high school. After the war he was sidetracked once again, became a freelance radio writer and actor in Chicago, helped create the memorable It's Your Life series of documentaries. Last March, he got the idea for Mr. Wizard, sold it to NBC and hired 12-year-old Bruce Lindgren as his helper and sometimes skeptical stooge. Bruce now knows more about the basic principles of sound, air pressure, oxidation and leverage than the run of high school graduates.
Though Mr. Wizard has a sponsor (the Cereal Institute), NBC thinks enough of it as a public service program to furnish the time free of charge and none of the 54 TV stations carrying the 30-minute show gets any money for it. Chicago's Federated Advertising Club was so impressed it created an award especially for Mr. Wizard. But the most surprising tribute came from the Voice of America; it entered a standing order for recorded transcripts of each show.