January 11, 2020


(NBC, March 3, 1951-June 27, 1965, September 11, 1971-September 2, 1972)

National Broadcasting Company

Don Herbert – Mr. Wizard

            Don Herbert was a science and English major from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse that had an interest in drama. After serving in World War II as a B-24 bomber pilot, Herbert joined Chicago radio station WMAQ where he acted in children’s programs such as the documentary series It’s Your Life, created by the Chicago Industrial Health Organization. During this time, Herbert got the idea of using the new medium of television to bring science to the masses. He pitched his idea and it was accepted by Chicago’s NBC station, WNBQ (now WMAQ-TV).

Don Herbert with one of his books looking on at an experiment.

            Watch Mr. Wizard debuted on March 3, 1951. Filmed live, the series starred Herbert as Mr. Wizard, a science hobbyist, who would show either a little boy or girl a science experiment. To hook the audience, Herbert would show the results of the experiment, then proceed to explain how it was done and the science behind it. The experiments seemed extremely complicated at first, but ended up being simple and easily re-created by viewers at home. In fact, to keep the show accessible, Herbert refused to don a lab coat and performed his experiments in a garage or kitchen-like setting with everyday household items (which also helped stretch the practically non-existent budget).

Mr. Wizard demonstrating an experiment to one of his young female assistants.

The series proved a hit, drawing in millions of viewers.  It was broadcast live by 14 stations by 1954, and an additional 77 stations aired the show via kinescope recordings. It also netted a Peabody Award and three Thomas Alva Edison National Mass Media Awards. By 1956, over 5,000 Mr. Wizard science clubs were created with an estimated membership of more than 100,000 people (that number increased to 50,000 clubs within the next decade). Teachers had also begun incorporating the experiments from the show into their lesson plans. Initially, the show was sponsored by The Cereal Institute until 1955. NBC took over financing by classifying it as a public affairs program from its news division. The series also moved production from Chicago to New York. 


After 547 episodes, NBC cancelled the series in 1965; feeling that it had run its course and audiences weren’t tuning in to be educated. However, Herbert wasn’t done with edutainment yet. He produced an 8-film series called Experiment: The Story of a Scientific Search that aired on public television through grants from the National Science Foundation and the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation, as well as Science 20, which were 20-minute films of experiments designed for use in classrooms. In 1968, Herbert formed Mr. Wizard Enterprises, Inc. to raise money for production and distribution of his classroom films. He also penned numerous articles and opened a Mr. Wizard Science Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

After five years off the air, NBC decided to produce a revival of the series. Production was done in Ottawa, Canada and in color for the first time. Renamed simply Mr. Wizard, the revival debuted on September 11, 1971 and ran for a single season of 26 episodes. Additionally, Herbert produced 50 Mr. Wizard Close-Ups which were 30-second spots that would also air on NBC Saturday mornings, and later on ABC-affiliated stations. The Close-Ups would receive a nomination for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming” from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Herbert continued producing educational content, including one last revival of Mr. Wizard as Mr. Wizard’s World on the then-fledgling Nickelodeon network in 1983.

Behind the scenes photo during Mr. Wizard's NBC tenure.

Herbert is often credited with inspiring scientific interest and curiosity within generations of children, with some of them going on to careers in science themselves. Further, Herbert’s legacy continues to be recognized in pop culture: such as having the penguin puppets named after him on similar science program Beakman’s World, a mention of his program in the “Weird Al” Yankovic song “Cable TV”, and most recently as the inspiration for the Professor Proton character played by Bob Newhart on The Big Bang Theory

Later edition of one of Herbert's books.

During his career, Herbert had published several books expanding on the science he taught about, including Mr. Wizard’s Science Secrets from Popular Mechanics (which also came with a science kit), Mr. Wizard’s Experiments for Young Scientists from Doubleday, Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science from Book-Lab, Inc., and Mr. Wizard’s Supermarket Science from Random House. In 1952, a Mr. Wizard home science kit was released in stores and later reissued in 1999. Before his death in 2007, Herbert personally curated a selection of episodes from his various runs for release on DVD through his Mr. Wizard Studios. 32 episodes from the original run were released across 8 volumes either individually or as a set. Additionally, two coffee mugs featuring the logos from his first and last series were offered.


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