Army Air Force Veteran Don Herbert served in WWII as a B-24 Bomber Pilot. Later, his TV show, “Mr. Wizard,” inspired a generation of kid scientists.
Many people inspire through action, and others encourage through speeches and lectures. But for Army Air Force Veteran Don Jeffery Herbert, it was a combination of action, experience and lecture. Herbert used his service experience to inspire a generation of kids through his knowledge and personal joy of radio and general science. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, he introduced them to the world of wonderful science with his television show “Mr. Wizard.” By the 1980s, his show was shown on the cable television channel Nickelodeon.
Herbert was born in July 1917, in Waconia, Minnesota. He earned a general science and English degree at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, then known as La Crosse State Teachers College. He had an interest in drama, as wel,l and started a mild acting career, which was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Herbert enlisted in the Army, before later volunteering for the Army Air Force and taking pilot lessons. He became a B-24 bomber pilot and transferred to the 767th Bomber Squadron, where he flew 56 combat missions in Italy, and more in Germany and Yugoslavia. He later transferred to the 461st Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force, where he would remain until he was discharged in 1945.
After the war, Herbert resumed his acting career, taking a job at a Chicago radio station and acting in children’s programs. One of the more notable programs was a documentary health series called “It’s Your Life,” which aired in 1949. During his time in this position, he came up with the idea of a general science experiment show that would utilize the new medium of television to engage children. He would name the show “Mr. Wizard,” pitching the idea to the Chicago NBC station WNBQ, who put the show on air. “Mr. Wizard” premiered on March 3, 1951. The show became a massive success, totaling 547 episodes in the span of 14 years, before its cancellation in 1965. The series won a Peabody Award in its third year of airing and drew in roughly 8,000 viewers per episode. The show was such an influence on children and science that schools and teachers started implementing various themes of the program.
After the show’s cancellation, Herbert never truly let the name or idea of Mr. Wizard die out. He appearied on the General Electric Theater as a progress reporter and also produced eight films in a series called “Experiment: The Story of a Scientific Search,” which aired in 1966.
By 1983, Herbert developed “Mr. Wizard’s World,” essentially a faster paced version of his original show, airing three times a week rather than once a week. This new series broadcast on the Nickelodeon channel and ran for seven years before finishing with reruns that ran until 2000. Herbert also wrote several books on science, his most notable being “Mr. Wizard’s Supermarket Science” and “Mr. Wizard’s Experiments for Young Scientists.”
Herbert’s ideas were the inspiration for many scientists and other science programs, whether for children or otherwise. Bill Nye the Science Guy credited Herbert with being the forefather of science television programs in the United States.
Herbert died in June 2007. After his death, the television program, MythBusters, aired a two-hour episode called “Special Super-sized Myths,” which was “Dedicated to Mr. Wizard.”