His name was Don Herbert, but to a generation of kids he was Mr. Wizard, one of the first icons of television, the man who made science fun. You were always hoping you might learn how to make something really cool, like an atomic bomb, something that would win you a lot of satisfaction (if not an A) at school.
“Watch Mr. Wizard” ran from 1951 to 1964 (with an additional run in the 80s), and was probably the prototype of the do-it-yourself show – perhaps even programs like “The New Yankee Workshop.” It came at a time when science was exciting and important – warfare had entered the nuclear age, space travel was on the horizon, the “Science Gap” with the Soviet Union was troubling to everyone – and Herbert, the mild-mannered teacher from Minnesota, was there to demystify the whole thing, to bring the wonders of science right into your living room (or kitchen; he never failed to remind kids that a mayonnaise jar was a perfectly good substitute for a fancy beaker.) It's appropriate that the very technology that came from science makes it possible for us to watch Mr. Wizard today via DVD.
The show left itself open to a lot of ribbing, but it was affectionately done. One of the best was by Ed Williams, who played the police scientist Ted Olson in Police Squad! and was forever demonstrating to Billy things like how static electricity worked (using women’s lingerie as an example). It’s the kind of fun we reserve for our icons, and for anyone of that era no list of icons could fail to include Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard, who died yesterday at 89. Rest in peace, good teacher.