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."

A Hazardous History of the Slip 'N Slide

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

One day in the summer of 1960, Robert Carrier arrived at his home in Lakewood, California, and saw his 10-year-old son Mike laying in front of the garage. When he got closer, he noticed his son was laughing. The property had a painted concrete driveway, and when it got wet, its surface became slick. Mike and his friends had spent the afternoon turning on the garden hose, getting a running start from the garage—which was carpeted—and then belly-flopping onto the concrete, sliding all the way to the curb.

“You guys are going to kill yourselves doing this,” Carrier said. Yet he didn’t tell them to stop.

When the Carriers moved to a new home—which had a back patio painted with the same slick coating—Mike and his friends brought their garden hose antics with them. The fun and games continued until Mike ended up crashing through a gate and breaking it.

It was at this point that Robert Carrier decided that if his son was going to insist on sliding, he might as well try to make it as safe as possible.

Carrier was an upholsterer who happened to work for a company that produced boat seats and had access to a variety of materials. So he brought home a 50-foot roll of Naugahyde, a fabric coated in vinyl, which he unspooled on his property. Carrier curled the material over on one side and stitched it in intervals. When the hose was fed through the curl, water seeped through the holes and kept the surface wet.

The result was a backyard lane devoted to slipping and sliding. When Carrier saw neighborhood kids racing over and traffic on his street getting backed up, he decided to patent his invention. The application referred to it as a “portable aquatic play device for body planing.” He called it the Slip ‘N Slide—though he probably should have named it the Slip ‘N Sue.

 

Carrier and his business partner, Richard Eriser, took his idea to the Wham-O company, a brand devoted to celebrating off-kilter toys like the Hula Hoop and Frisbee. Wham-O was also inventor-friendly and open to outside submissions. They agreed to manufacture and market the Slip ‘N Slide with one adjustment: The expensive Naugahyde material would have to be replaced with plastic.

A child goes down a water slide
Nat_Batemen/iStock via Getty Images

The 30-foot-long, 40-inch-wide Slip ‘N Slide went on sale in 1961 and was an immediate hit, selling 300,000 units priced at $9.95 in a matter of months. Kids were instructed to unwind the material across an area free of rocks or debris and then stake it into the ground. The surface had a lubricant molded directly into the plastic that acted as a propellant, so that kids sprinting to the top of the slide would take off like human projectiles. Some kids even added dish soap to the water provided by their garden hose for additional propulsion.

The same year the Slip ‘N Slide was introduced, Wham-O officials observed an interesting phenomenon: The more fun kids had, the more compelled adults felt to try it. Initially, this wasn’t seen as a big deal; plenty of parents play with their kids' toys. But the Slip ‘N Slide had been engineered for children of limited height and weight, typically under 125 pounds. When adults jumped on the surface, they were not always jettisoned across. Sometimes their weight meant they would abruptly stop, the forward momentum driving the weight of their body directly onto their necks. This could be devastating for the spinal cord and it was possible to suffer quadriplegia, paraplegia, or even death as a result of the impact.

Between 1973 and 1991, it's estimated that a total of seven adults and one 13-year-old suffered neck injuries or paralysis as a direct result of using the Slip ‘N Slide. Though these instances were rare, Wham-O was apparently concerned to the point they opted to take it off the market in the late 1970s. It wasn’t brought back to store shelves until Wham-O was purchased by the Kransco company in 1982.

 

The Slip ‘N Slide had always carried warnings that it was for use by children 10 or 11 years of age and younger. But it was not a superficially dangerous-looking plaything, and adults either failed to take the warning seriously or simply discarded the box and instructions without paying any attention to them. As a possible result, Kransco experienced two major lawsuits that would elevate the Slip ‘N Slide to the level of a public nuisance.

A child goes down a water slide
hixson/iStock via Getty Images

In 1987, Michael Hubert of Wisconsin used his neighbor’s Slip ‘N Slide and suffered a broken neck. The 34-year-old was left an incomplete paraplegic, meaning he had a limited ability to walk and use his hands. He sued Kransco over the injury. American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Company, which insured Kransco, offered Hubert a $250,000 settlement, which he rejected. The case went to a jury trial in 1991 and Hubert was awarded $12.3 million. The jury declared the Slip ‘N Slide defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Kransco ultimately settled with Hubert for $7.5 million. They subsequently sued American Empire, claiming the insurance company could have settled for $750,000 but chose not to, leaving Kransco on the hook for paying the settlement above the $1 million they had in coverage. Kransco won that case and was awarded $17 million.

In 1988, a University of Central Florida student named Robert Goldstein broke his neck on the slide. He also sued and was awarded $1.6 million in 1995. John C. Mitchell II, the lawyer who represented Goldstein, later said he believed the lawsuits influenced Kransco to take the Slip ‘N Slide off the market in 1991. But that was far from the end of the controversy.

In 1993, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a recall notice in conjunction with Kransco to alert consumers to the dangers of the slide. Though it had been discontinued, 9 million had been sold between 1961 and 1992 and an unknown number were still available in stores. (A total of 30 million slides were sold through 2011.) The CPSC warned the slide was for children and that adults and teenagers might suffer permanent spinal cord injury. Unlike some product recalls, however, the CPSC did not take action to take it off the market entirely. The reason, according to a spokesperson, was that it was a product for children, and children were not getting hurt on it—only adults were.

In 1994, attorney Matthew Rinaldi told The Seattle Times that accurate injury numbers were hard to come by because previous settlements may have included agreements not to discuss the case. Rinaldi represented a man in California who became a quadriplegic as a result of the slide. In preparation for that case, he found two people who broke their necks in the 1970s, one of whom had died. He also found six adults who suffered broken necks in the 1980s and 1990s as well as one 8-year-old girl who suffered brain damage. In 1989, a consumer advocacy group known as the Consumer Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action reported that 5000 people had gone to the hospital for slide-related injuries in 1988 alone.

 

In 1994, while the Slip 'N Slide was still dormant, Kransco sold Wham-O to Mattel. The company was sold again in 1997, this time to an investment group led by Charterhouse Group. In 2001, Wham-O brought out a revamped version of the Slip ‘N Slide with a longer path, water tunnels, and archways. The company said it was “perfectly safe” for anyone under the age of 11 to use.

A man stands up on a water slide
scampdesigns/iStock via Getty Images

Since that time, Wham-O has been sold twice more—first to Cornerstone Overseas Investments in 2005 and then to InterSport and Stallion Sport in 2015. The Slip ‘N Slide remains on sale with the standard cautions that it should only be used by kids, though that hasn’t prevented adults from trying it out. This time, they tend to post the results on YouTube.

"Officially, the box says under 12," Wham-O president Todd Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. "Not everyone abides by that."

While the history of the Slip 'N Slide appears sensational, it's not unique in the realm of playthings that can prompt injury. Between 2002 and 2011, roughly 1 million people—most of them kids under the age of 16—wound up in the emergency room as a result of bouncing on a trampoline. A third of them suffered long bone fractures.

When used as directed, Slip 'N Slides can be a fun and safe diversion, though that still hasn't stopped the product from being stigmatized. In late 2018, another consumer watchdog group, World Against Toys Causing Harm, released their list of the most dangerous toys on the market. Among them: water balloon slingshots, backyard pools, and the Slip ‘N Slide.

The Long Stride of Tony Little, Infomercial Titan

Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Tony Little didn’t see it coming. It was 1983, and the aspiring bodybuilder and future Gazelle pitchman was living in Tampa Bay, Florida, winding down his training for the Mr. America competition that was coming up in just six weeks. While driving to the gym, Little stopped at a red light and waited. Suddenly, a school bus materialized on his left, plowing into Little's vehicle and crumpling his driver’s side door.

Dazed and running on adrenaline, Little got out and sprinted over to find the bus was full of children. After seeing that none of the kids were seriously hurt, he promptly passed out. When Little later awoke, he was in the hospital, where he was handed a laundry list of the injuries he had sustained. There were two herniated discs, a cracked vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, and a dislocated knee. He struggled to maintain his physique in the weight room and made only a perfunctory appearance at that year's Mr. America competition. Little's dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder had been derailed courtesy of an errant school bus, whose driver had been drunk.

Though it took some time, Little eventually overcame the setback, pivoting from his original goal of being a champion bodybuilder to becoming one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the history of televised advertising. Before he did that, however, he would have to recover from another car accident.

 

For someone so devoted to physical achievement, Little was constantly being undercut by obstacles. During a high school football game, Little—who was a star player on his team in Ohio—ended up tearing the cartilage in his knee after he collided with future NFL player Rob Lytle. From that point on, Little's knee popped out of place whenever he stepped onto the field or went to gym class.

Tony Little is photographed at the premiere of Vh1's 'Celebrity Paranormal Project' in Hollywood, California in 2006
John M. Heller, Getty Images

In There’s Always a Way, his 2009 autobiography, Little wrote about how that injury—and the loss of a potential athletic scholarship—caused him to act out. A friend of his stole a Firebird and took Little for a joyride. When they were caught, Little took the blame; as he was under 18, Little figured he would get by with a slap on the wrist, while his older friend might be tried and convicted of a serious crime as an adult. According to Little, the judge gave him a pass on the condition that he relocate to Tampa Bay, where he could live with his uncle and put some distance between himself and the negative influences in his life. Little agreed.

Because of his previous injury, Little was unable to play football after making the move to Florida; instead, he devoted himself to his new high school’s weight room, where a bad knee was not nearly as limiting. After graduating, he pursued bodybuilding, earning the titles of Junior Mr. America and Mr. Florida. Little envisioned a future where he would be a fitness personality, selling his own line of supplements when he wasn't competing professionally.

The school bus changed all that. Little, who was now unable to train at the level such serious competition required, retreated to his condo, where he said he relied on painkillers to numb the physical and emotional pain of the accident. More misfortune followed: Little accidentally sat in a pool of chemicals at a friend’s manufacturing plant, suffering burns. He also had a bout with meningitis.

While Little was convalescing from this string of ailments and accidents, he saw Jane Fonda on television, trumpeting her line of workout videos. Little was intrigued: Maybe he didn’t need to have bodybuilding credentials to reach a wider audience. Maybe his enthusiastic approach to motivating people would be enough.

By now it was the mid-1980s, and a very good time to get into televised pitching. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which deregulated paid airtime for cable networks. Herbalife was the first to sign up, airing an infomercial for their line of nutritional products. Soon, stations were broadcasting all kinds of paid programs. Exercise advice and equipment pitches were abundant, a kind of throwback to department stores that used to feature product demonstrations. It was not enough to read about a Soloflex, which used resistance bands to strengthen muscles. It was better to see it in action.

Now that he was back in shape, Little was ready to make his mark. He was told by his local cable access channel that he could buy 15 half-hours of airtime for $5500. To raise the money, Little started a cleaning service for gyms and health clubs. After airing installments of an exercise program, he was picked up by the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Little made his HSN debut in 1987. With his energetic pitch and trademark ponytail, he sold 400 workout videos in four hours.

 

Little was on the home-shopping and infomercial circuit for years before landing his breakthrough project. In 1996, the Ohio-based company Fitness Quest was preparing to launch their Gazelle, an elliptical trainer that could raise the heart rate without any impact on joints. People used their hands and feet to move in a long stride that felt effortless.

Little felt he would be the perfect spokesperson for the Gazelle and entered into an arrangement with Bob Schnabel, the company's president. The night before the infomercial was scheduled to shoot, Little was driving when he got into another serious car accident that required 200 stitches in his face. Little called Schnabel to break the news, and was told he’d have to be replaced.

Tony Little demonstrates a Gazelle during an MTV upfront presentation in New York in 2016
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Undaunted, Little flew from Florida to Ohio to speak to Schnabel in person. By insisting that he could make the story inspirational (and that he could cover up his injuries with make-up), Little managed to convince Schnabel to proceed with the infomercial as planned. The Gazelle ended up with $1.5 billion in revenue, with Little’s other ventures—Cheeks sandals, bison meat, and a therapeutic pillow—bringing the total sales of his endorsed products to more than $3 billion. Little later reprised his Gazelle pitch for a Geico commercial, which also served as a stealth ad for the machine—which is still on the market.

While pitching wound up being relatively low-impact, it was not completely without problems. Little once said that the accumulation of appearances—more than 10,000 in all—has done some damage to his neck because of constantly having to swivel his head between the camera and the model demonstrating his product.

Those appearances have made Little synonymous with the machine. In 2013, the Smithsonian's National Zoo wondered what to name their new baby gazelle. The answer: Little Tony.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER