Jonathan Dobres

remembrances of mr. wizard

Don Herbert, better known as TV’s Mr. Wizard, passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

I remember Mr. Wizard from the 80s Nickelodeon classic Mr. Wizard’s World (itself, I just learned, a revival of Herbert’s Watch Mister Wizard from the 1950s). Mr. Wizard’s science was of the gentle sort; he was the soft-spoken, professorial counterpart to Fred Rogers. He had a polite dignity, and I doubt he would ever stoop so low as to call himself a science guy. He needed none of that television harlot’s flashy tricks. Just a fridge, some salt, and an empty jar with a hole in the lid, and look what we can learn, thank you very much.

I have no idea when I saw my first episode of Mr. Wizard, or at least, I don’t remember the year or month. I do remember the time of day. I’ve never been a morning person, but on the rare occasions when I somehow managed to wake up around dawn, with no one else awake in the whole house (or the whole world, for all it mattered), my greatest pleasure was watching TV. Mundane as it sounds, it was anything but. Strange programs came on at this time of day, like something from a parallel universe. There was that one early, badly dubbed anime based on a videogame I had never played, there was my one brief, terrifying experience with a televangelist, and then there was Mr. Wizard.

Mr. Wizard’s quiet manner was already becoming a rarity in the early 90s, and it was perfectly suited to the way I watched this dawn-hour TV—secretly, and always just a click or two shy of mute. It was here, in the calm of the early morning, that I learned lessons about how ice freezes and how magnets work. Quite vividly, I remember Mr. Wizard’s demonstration of an early graphic computer. It displayed a simple, color drawing of a space shuttle. I watched enviously as that episode’s student got to move the cursor and effortlessly, miraculously, airbrush in the smoke of the liftoff and turn a brownish night into clear, blue day with a few easy clicks.

Mr. Wizard’s World started in 1983 on Nickelodeon and reran its paltry 78 episodes until 2000, making it the longest running show on a network I hardly recognize today. I’m sure that by the time it left the air it came off as more of a historical relic than an educational program, but I’m glad it was around for so long. I’ll always love the oddly surreal intro.