Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Fanny Pack

Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella
Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella

Back in 1954, Sports Illustrated ran an advertisement for a leather pouch that was touted as an ideal accessory for cross-country skiers who wanted to hold their lunch and ski wax. Hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists could also benefit from this waist-mounted sack, which was a bit like a backpack situated on the hips.

The “fanny pack” sold for $10 ($95 today). For the next several decades, it remained popular among recreational enthusiasts traveling by bike, on foot, or across trails where hands could be kept free and a large piece of travel luggage was unnecessary. From there, it morphed into a fashion statement, marketed by Gucci and Nike for decorative and utilitarian purposes in the 1980s and '90s, before becoming an ironic hipster joke. Even the name—fanny pack—suggests mirth. But the concept of carrying goods on top of your buttocks was never meant to be a joking matter.

A man sports a ski outfit with a fanny pack in 1969
McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mankind has looked to belt-mounted storage solutions for centuries. Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy found preserved in a glacier in 1991, had a leather satchel that held a sharpened piece of bone and flint-stone tools. Subsequent civilizations adopted the premise, with Victorian and Edwardian women toting chatelaine purses made of silk or velvet.

The 20th-century obsession with the fanny pack seemingly began on the ski slopes in Europe in the 1960s and '70s. Known as bauchtasche, or stomach bags, in Switzerland, skiers traveling away from the base lodge who wanted to keep certain items—food, money, a map, flares, and occasionally alcohol—within arm's reach wore them proudly. Photographers also found them useful when hiking or traveling outdoors and climbing through obstacles, as they reduced the risk of an expensive camera or lens being dropped or damaged.

Their migration into fashion and the general public happened in the 1980s, due to what Fashion Fads Through American History author Jennifer Grayer Moore dubbed the rise of “athleisure.” This trend saw apparel and accessories typically relegated to sports or exercise—think leggings, track suits, and gym shorts—entering day-to-day use. With them came the fanny pack, a useful depository for keys, wallets, drinks, and other items. They were especially popular among tourists, who could stash travel accessories like cameras and souvenirs without burdening themselves with luggage.

In the late 1980s, fashion took notice. High-end labels like Chanel manufactured premium fanny packs, often with the more dignified name of belt bag. Sporting one was considered cool, as evidenced by their presence in popular culture. The Fresh Prince, Will Smith, wore one. Members of New Kids on the Block were seen with them. Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade people from feeling pragmatic and hip by sporting an oversized pocket on their waist, which they typically pulled to the front.

A model sports a fanny pack, also known as a belt bag, across her shoulder
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Like most trends, overexposure proved fatal. Fanny packs were everywhere, given out by marketing departments of major brands like Miller Beer and at sports arenas and stadiums. Plastered with corporate logos, they became too crassly commercial for style purposes and too pervasive. By the end of the 1990s, wearing a fanny pack was no longer cool. It was an act that invited mockery and disdain.

The pack, of course, has retained its appeal among outdoor enthusiasts, and lately has been experiencing a resurgence in style circles, with designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Valentino offering high-end pouches. Many are now being modified or worn across the torso like a bandolier (like so), an adaptation prized by skateboarders who want something to hold their goods without hindering movement.

In 2018, fanny packs were credited with a surge in overall accessories sales, posting double-digit gains in merchandise. The fanny pack may have had its day as an accessory of mass appeal, but it’s not likely to completely disappear anytime soon.

A Fad to Dye For: The Brief Life of Hypercolor Clothing

Shadow Shifter, YouTube
Shadow Shifter, YouTube

There's something counterintuitive about a clothing line for young adults that could exhibit outward signs of embarrassment. A shirt, for example, that changes color as a person sweats would seem like something no teenager would want to wear. Yet apparel company Generra struck gold with Hypercolor, their line of thermochromic apparel dyed with a patented process that allowed the cotton fabric to react to spikes in the wearer's body temperature.

It wasn’t just sweat. If someone placed their hand on the shirt, they would leave a handprint that looked almost irradiated. Hugs would deposit lines of color across backs. Even breathing on the fabric caused it to change color. It was interactive “mood” clothing, and for a brief period of time in 1991, it was one of the hottest trends in apparel.

Products that respond to the wearer's emotions or behavior are not a new concept. In 1975, a “mood ring” was introduced that purportedly changed color based on the user’s temperament using a heat-sensitive liquid crystal. Soon after, mood lipsticks began appearing in cosmetics aisles. Freezy Freakies, a line of winter gloves with images that materialized in cold weather, gripped the nation in the 1980s.

Freezy Freakies used thermochromic ink, a methodology that was similar to how Hypercolor clothing managed to change appearance. Generra, which was founded by former executives of the Brittania clothing label in 1980, struck upon the idea after coming across a process developed by Japan's Matsui Shikiso chemical company. First, a permanent dye would be used on a cotton garment—blue, for example. Then a thermochromatic dye would be added, with microcapsules bonding to the fabric. That dye would typically be made of leuco dye, which can appear colorless, along with acid and dissociable salt dissolved in a fatty alcohol named 1-Dodecanol.

The 1-Dodecanol is solid at temperatures below 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 75.2 degrees, it reacts with the salt, causing the previously colorless leuco dye to take on a new color based on light absorption and reflection in the fabric. If the leuco dye is yellow and the shirt is blue, the warmed spot will appear to be green.

Naturally, few kids cared much about the science behind it—they just knew their T-shirt could change colors. Generra became the exclusive licensee of the Hypercolor technology in the United States and began a heavy promotional campaign in late 1990, blanketing MTV and teen magazines like Seventeen and Thrasher with print ads for the color-shifting apparel that read: “Hypercolor, hypercool.”

The marketing assault created heavy anticipation for the official debut of Hypercolor in January 1991. Available at retail locations, the clothing typically bore the Hypercolor insignia or no logo at all. Prospective buyers could sample the thermochromatic action in stores. Even better, they could do it in schools, where kids who had bought the shirts walked the hallways and acted as living billboards for the line.

“Everybody was touching it and breathing on it and stuff and trying to get it to change colors,” Courtney Signorella, a 12-year-old customer and student at Fort Myers Middle School in Fort Myers, Florida, told the News-Press in July 1991 of her classmates' reaction to her Hypercolor gear. The clothes also changed color in air conditioning, under the sun, and during exercise.

Steve Miska, Generra's chairman at the time, dismissed concerns the clothing could be a potential neon sign of nervousness. After testing the garments on his own employees, he felt the color changes in armpits were blotchy and not terribly noticeable. Even though they made shorts and jeans, there was no apparent issue with any kind of discoloration in groin areas. For a potentially controversial piece of apparel, Hypercolor got by without a scratch.

The only problem? Generra underestimated just how enthralled people would be. The company projected $20 million in sales for 1991. By April of that year, they had sold $50 million in Hypercolor items, from shirts ($24) to tank tops ($15) to shorts ($34). A spin-off line, Hypergrafix, used images that would appear with a temperature spike. All told, the company did $105 million in wholesale revenue for that year, over five times what they had anticipated.

But Hypercolor's success came at a price. There was a shortage of the dyes used, and a backlog of orders that needed to be filled. Generra added employees and new manufacturing facilities in their home base of Seattle but wound up meeting only half of the demand. By the time production ramped back up, consumer enthusiasm for Hypercolor was beginning to wane.

A Hypercolor t-shirt with a handprint is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After the initial novelty of seeing handprints or color changes wore off, the shirts weren’t much different from other apparel in closets. And if the fascination for the clothing didn’t fade, the dye soon did. Repeated washings or drying in machines (which wasn’t recommended) frequently diluted the reaction, turning the clothing into a purple-brown oddity. Younger buyers were also gravitating toward licensed sports apparel, like NBA shirts, as well as fashion trends offered by outlets like the Gap.

“There’s nothing trendy about Hypercolor,” Miska told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, at the height of the product's popularity. Little did he know how true those words would soon become.

By 1992, the fad was over and Generra declared bankruptcy, selling off its screen-printing plant and licensing a company named Seattle T-Shirt to make Hypercolor apparel for an increasingly shrinking consumer base.

Heat-reactive clothing has never disappeared entirely. In 2008, a number of manufacturers, including American Apparel and Puma, tried to resurrect the style with shirts, dresses, and sneakers. Currently, a line of clothing under the brand name Shadow Shifter has taken up the baton, offering shirts and other products that react to both temperature and water. Hypercolor was a thermochromatic flash in the pan, despite Generra’s optimism.

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