Biographical / Historical
Donald Herbert Kemske (1917-2007) was the creator and host of Watch Mr. Wizard (1951–1965), Mr. Wizard (1971–1972), Mr. Wizard's World (1983–1990), and other educational television programs for children devoted to science and technology. He also produced many short video programs about science and authored several popular books about science for children. So important was Mr. Wizard to scientific education on television that author Marcel LaFollette featured his photo on the cover of her book, Science on American Television: A History, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Don Herbert was born Donald Herbert Kemske in Waconia, Minnesota on July 10, 1917. He was one of three children (sisters Betty and Dorothy) born to Herbert Kemske and Lydia Kemske (nee Poeppel). He officially changed his name in 1940 to Donald Jeffry Herbert. Herbert graduated from LaCrosse State Normal College in 1940 with a Bachelor of Science degree. In 1942, Herbert volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps and in 1943 began training as an aviation cadet and then pilot. During World War II, Herbert served in the 461 Bomb Group and 767 Bomb Squadron in Europe. He was discharged from the military service on July 29, 1945 as a captain and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. After the war, Herbert worked at a radio station in Chicago and acted in children's programs, including It's Your Life (1949). During this time Herbert developed the idea of Mr. Wizard. In 1939, Herbert married Maraleita Dutton (1923-1995) and the couple adopted three children: Jeffrey (1954); Jay (1955); and Jill (1960). He later divorced Maraleita Dutton and married Norma Nix Kasell (1918-2010) in 1972.
Premiering on March 3, 1951 on WNBQ, a 14-station network in Chicago, Herbert's Watch Mr. Wizard differed considerably from earlier attempts at scientific education on television. Those shows were either very technical, like the Johns Hopkins Science Review, or used magic tricks and comedy to hold viewers' attention, like ABC's Science Circus and CBS' Mr. I. Magination. From the beginning, Herbert planned a serious, informative show for children, rather than their parents. Even though he had only minimal scientific training in college—he had been an English major at La Crosse State Normal College in Wisconsin—in his persona as Mr. Wizard, Herbert conveyed a sense of authority and expertise.
The show, broadcast live, was carefully scripted, meticulously researched, and smooth-flowing. Each week, Mr. Wizard—described by LaFollette as a "nonthreatening, easygoing, intelligent man with a smiling face" in shirtsleeves and tie (and the occasional lab coat)—carefully guided his youthful assistants through simple experiments. Using ordinary household items such as eggs, balloons, milk bottles, coffee cans, and knitting needles, Herbert explained larger scientific principles like gravity, magnetism, and oxidation. Although seemingly complex, the experiments actually were simple enough to be re-created by his young viewers in the classroom or at home.
Herbert's winning combination of personality, grasp of science, and use of ordinary objects made Mr. Wizard a hit with viewers and made a lasting impression on science education in America. As LaFollette writes, the program "enjoyed consistent praise, awards, and high ratings throughout its history. At its peak, Watch Mr. Wizard drew audiences in the millions, but its impact was far wider. By 1956, it had prompted the establishment of more than five thousand Mr. Wizard science clubs, with an estimated membership greater than one hundred thousand." After over 500 shows over fourteen and a half years, NBC abruptly canceled Watch Mr. Wizard in 1965. The last program under contract with NBC aired on June 27, 1965.
From 1954 to 1962, Herbert, appearing as Mr. Wizard, delivered "Progress Reports" during commercial breaks of the General Electric Theater. As with most commercially-sponsored shows, the progress being reported on was almost exclusively made by General Electric. Following the cancellation of Watch Mr. Wizard, he continued to use his Mr. Wizard persona in science education. In 1965-1966, he produced an eight-film-series, Experiment: The Story of a Scientific Search, which was broadcast on public television, and a series of twenty-minute films, Science Twenty, designed to complement the current science curriculum in the classroom (circa 1970).
Herbert's television show was briefly revived in 1971-1972 as Mr. Wizard, in response to protests over the cartoons and commercials that flooded children's Saturday morning prime viewing time, but it did not receive enough network support. Herbert appeared in commercials for several companies during the 1970s and briefly lobbied Congress on behalf of General Electric in 1975. In the early 1970s, Herbert also produced Mr. Wizard Close-Ups, thirty second spots that aired on NBC in the Saturday morning slot. In the late 1970s, he began collaborating with the National Science Foundation to create a series of short news briefs for television called How About…How About was an adult-oriented series of 80-second reports highlighting advances in science and technology. The reports were designed for insertion into existing commercial television programs.
In the early 1980s, Herbert returned to television in Mr. Wizard's World, a faster-paced version of the original show that ran on the Nickelodeon network from 1983-1990. After its cancellation, reruns ran until at least 2000. During this time Herbert made numerous appearances on television news and talk shows, particularly the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, where he was a popular guest. In the 1990s, Herbert produced Teacher to Teacher with Mr. Wizard, a video series that debuted on September 27, 1994 on the Nickelodeon cable channel. The innovative educational series provided a candid, close-up and in-depth visit to classrooms of outstanding teachers using hands-on, inquiry-based techniques.
Herbert also published several books, including Mr. Wizard's Science Secrets (1952); Mr. Wizard's Experiments for Young Scientists (1959); Mr. Wizard's 400 Experiments in Science (1968); and Mr. Wizard's Supermarket Science (1980). Additionally, he designed science kits involving chemistry, crystal growing, ecology, and electronics, which were marketed by Owens-Illinois in the 1960s.
Herbert's hands-on techniques in demonstrating scientific concepts to children were the inspiration for numerous educators who followed his lead. As popular TV science educator Bill Nye wrote in a special to the Los Angeles Times, his "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."
Don Herbert died in 2007, shortly before his 90th birthday. Soon after, the U.S. House of Representatives marked his passing: "Resolved, that the House of Representatives (1) expresses its appreciation for the profound public service and educational contributions of Don Jeffry Herbert, (2) recognizes the profound public impact of higher educational institutions that train teachers, (3) encourages students to honor the heritage of Don Herbert by exploring our world through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields; and, (4) extends its condolences to the family of Don Herbert and thanks them for their strong familial support of him."
LaFollette, Marcel. Science on American Television: A History, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Nye, Bill. "Teaching Science with a Big `Poof!' Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2007.