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Science television in the Sputnik age

22 September 2017

Two series from six decades ago set the tone for modern science television programming.

Mr. Wizard
Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) and his assistants Rita and Alan demonstrate a Rube Goldberg contraption to light a birthday candle. Credit: Mr. Wizard Studios Inc

The launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 triggered a crisis of confidence for many Americans. The Soviet satellite’s appearance suggested that the US had fallen behind in the Cold War. Had Americans failed to create a superior scientific infrastructure? Was American science education in need of drastic reform?

Despite those concerns, science communication in the US was actually thriving in the 1950s—particularly in the emerging medium of television. With viewers eager for information about space, medicine, and atomic energy, producers were scrambling to create series dedicated to science. Early programs were simple: A camera would film a professor delivering dry scientific factoids in front of a blackboard. Gradually science TV became more dynamic and interesting. In early 1957 NBC aired two science films, Hemo the Magnificent and The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, that were created by celebrated movie director Frank Capra. Regional television affiliates also had their own science programs; one of the best-known was Science in Action, produced by the California Academy of Sciences.

By the late 1950s, two styles of science edutainment had emerged. One approach encouraged viewers to rationally examine the world from the perspective of a scientist and emphasized the power of demonstrations. The other highlighted the magical qualities of science. NBC’s live-action Saturday-morning program Watch Mr. Wizard and ABC’s 1957 television special Our Friend the Atom provide us with ideal case studies of those approaches. Watch Mr. Wizard aimed to inspire viewers to become amateur scientists and to explore the science in their own life, while Our Friend the Atom swirled science and superstition together for a dramatic story. Although the more personal, traditional approach of Mr. Wizard has had a longer-lasting influence, both shows have left their mark on modern-day science television.

Straightforward science

Don Herbert, an actor from Chicago, pitched Watch Mr. Wizard to his local television station, WNBQ, in 1951. He was inspired to create a program that reflected his own curiosity with household scientific experiments. After enjoying local success, the program was later picked up nationally by NBC. Every Saturday morning, Mr. Wizard (Herbert), the friendly, middle-aged scientist, would invite children to visit his home laboratory and conduct a series of fun and dynamic experiments.

Mr. Wizard wasn’t the typical stuffy scientist of yesteryear. As Larry Wolters of the Chicago Tribune explained in June 1951, Mr. Wizard “doesn’t resemble the conventional television conception of a man of science, with beard, and white jacket, surrounded by laboratory gear, test tubes, retorts, and Bunsen burners. . . . He’s young and handsome, he’s friendly and gifted in explaining scientific phenomena as he demonstrates them.” Mr. Wizard suggested to his young viewers that they, too, could be scientists.

A 1957 picture book about the program, Mr. Wizard’s Junior Science Show, provides a good example of a typical episode. A trio of energetic children knock on Mr. Wizard’s front door. He welcomes them in for breakfast, made with his wife’s fresh strawberry jam. (Mrs. Wizard never appears on screen.) Mr. Wizard offers to help his young neighbors put on a science show for poor children. In one of the demonstrations, Mr. Wizard shows how to sink a toy battleship in a tank of water without ever touching the ship. “Gee willikers!” exclaims one child. “The Navy would like to know how to do that!” (The trick? Mr. Wizard isolated the battleship in a drinking glass that he pushed beneath the water.) Using household items and simple scientific principles, Mr. Wizard entranced a generation of young baby boomers.

Although Herbert borrowed some mystical rhetoric in the name Mr. Wizard, he carefully delineated the difference between magic and science. Herbert stressed the importance of understanding the reality of one’s surroundings and not confusing fact and fiction. “Always tell the truth to a child,” Herbert counseled parents in a newspaper editorial in 1957. “The moon isn’t made of green cheese, and chances are you wouldn’t tell him so.” Watch Mr. Wizard featured no enchanted wands, friendly genies, or animated scenes. It was a realistic, edifying approach to science.

Storytelling over science

Not surprisingly, Walt Disney and his powerhouse animation studio took a different approach to science programming. By the mid 1950s, Disney had produced several popular television specials about space exploration, including Man in Space (1955) and Man and the Moon (1955). Around the same time, members of the Eisenhower administration approached Disney and proposed a film about the peaceful applications of atomic energy, as part of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace campaign. The result, Our Friend the Atom, which first aired on 23 January 1957 on ABC’s weekly program Disneyland, was a Technicolor trip through the atom’s past, present, and future.

Unlike Watch Mr. Wizard, Our Friend the Atom intentionally blurred the line between fact and fiction. “Fiction often has a strange way of becoming fact,” Walt Disney observes in the program, with a knowing grin. At the start of the episode, he passes an impressive model of the newly built USS Nautilus and notes the similarities between the nuclear submarine and the fantastic vehicle featured in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. “The atom is our future,” Disney says. “It is a subject everyone wants to understand.” He walks by a set of futuristic posters featuring atomic designs. The unknowing viewer might admire the art; the sophisticated viewer recognizes the posters from the 1955 Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva. “Of course, we don’t pretend to be scientists,” Disney confides to his viewers. “We’re storytellers.”

Almost on cue, the camera pans to the opposite side of the studio and introduces the fictional science department of Disneyland Studios. Men and women in white laboratory coats shuffle around the room, holding test tubes and peering into microscopes. The camera settles on Heinz Haber, a real scientist who served as the program’s scientific consultant. He opens a picture book. “We had a science story,” Haber tells the audience. “But suddenly we realized that it was almost like a fairy tale.”

The fairy-tale motif is repeated throughout the hour-long episode, as Haber blends history and myth to create an appealing representation of atomic energy as a mysterious, magical force. He also retells the story of nuclear energy as a continuation of the story of steam power. Through the magic of animation, viewers meet Democritus, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and other scientists. They shrink to subatomic size to watch a nuclear chain reaction.

Despite the positive energy of Our Friend the Atom, the specter of nuclear warfare looms over the episode. At the beginning and end of the program, Haber invokes a story about a poor fisherman and his attempts to contain a powerful genie. Throughout the film, the genie’s face is superimposed on the image of a mushroom cloud. There is no doubt about the atomic allusion. At the end of the film, Haber explains the positive power of the atom as the genie onscreen helps scientists fly atomic rockets, run nuclear generators, and cure cancer. “It lies in our own hands to make wise use of atomic treasures,” Haber expounds. “Then the magic touch of the genie will spread throughout the world, and he will grant the gifts of science to all mankind.”

Sixty years later

Watch Mr. Wizard and Our Friend the Atom showcase two dramatically different styles of science education on television. Herbert, as Mr. Wizard, focused on helping children understand scientific principles using simple tools and easy experiments. His aim was to help them play with the science in their everyday world. (Why does salt dissolve in water? How does a record player work?) Our Friend the Atom offered viewers a flashier educational experience. Walt Disney wrapped an emotional story of the atom—mysterious, yet hopeful—around a lesson about atomic structure. His television special created a set of visual metaphors to help viewers picture invisible particles and rays. Another crucial difference: Our Friend the Atom presented a picture of scientists as distinct and removed from the general public. Watch Mr. Wizard suggested that even a five-year-old child could be a scientist.

Of the two programs, it was Watch Mr. Wizard that proved to have the more lasting influence. Disney even had a Mr. Wizard–like figure, Professor Wonderful (Julius Sumner Miller), who appeared on episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1960s. Other imitators included Beakman’s World, which appeared in the 1990s; it had two characters on the program named Don and Herbert. Steven Spielberg even offered Herbert a cameo role as a high school science teacher in the 1982 movie E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Bill Nye, the host of Bill Nye the Science Guy, has often cited Herbert as a direct inspiration for his own style.

Our Friend the Atom’s legacy is harder to trace. Although Heinz Haber never became a well-known science educator, Our Friend the Atom itself remained popular in American classrooms for several decades. Cable channels like Discovery and National Geographic regularly employ digital special effects on their television series to wow their viewers, just as Disney engaged his audience with simple cell animation.

Often, 1957 is remembered as the year of Sputnik. But it could also be thought of as a year of science communication. With shows like Our Friend the Atom and Watch Mr. Wizard, Americans weren’t at a loss for good science education on television. Faced with the challenge presented by the Sputnik program, Americans were primed to sate their scientific curiosity and compete in the space race.

Ingrid M. Ockert is a PhD candidate in the history of science at Princeton University. Her dissertation focuses on the history of American science television series. For more information on Watch Mr. Wizard, visit the studio’s website. This research was supported with a grant from the Lemelson Center at the National Museum of American History.

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