Images of Modernity


Mr. Wizard, ca. 1950s. Courtesy of Mr. Wizard Studios.

Popular science in the 20th century shifted from targeting adults in the lecture hall to children in their homes; showmen-scientists who once wowed adult audiences were replaced by television shows aimed at ever younger children. For almost 50 years children tuned in to Don Herbert's "Mr. Wizard" television show to watch Herbert and his youthful assistants conduct simple scientific experiments. the 1950s witnessed an explosions of kid-centered products and entertainment that would engage American youth in chemical pursuits. Bright colors, child-oriented graphics, and an emphasis on fun marked science as a child's activity. For many educators and parents in the post-Sputnik era, children's scientific literacy was a competitive necessity in a globalizing world. While educators debated methods of teaching science, entrepreneurs marketed a dizzying array of science toys to anxious parents. The most popular science toy of all time, the chemistry set, lost its band in the late 20th century; increasing cultural concerns about children's safety and fear of lawsuits eliminated most of its chemicals. 


Caustic Pot House Stacks, "A" Power Stack, "A" Pump Station, and "A" Evaporator Building, 1920. Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond (1875-1970). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Henry H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. 

The bright, hazy sky, the streaming smokestacks, and the vibrant, sunny colors of this painting of a Dow Chemical Company factory illustrate the admiration many had for industrial production in the first half of the 20th century. But the waste and pollution generated by industry in the United States was already evident by the 1920s. “We are a prodigal people,” chemical educator and consultant Arthur D. Little wrote in 1928, “prospering for a time by methods which would end European civilization within a generation.” Abundant natural resources, wide open spaces, and plentiful water supplies encouraged destructive practices in chemical and other industries well into the 20th century. Scientists recognized the perils inherent in some widely used chemical processes and battled to rid workplaces and the environment of pollutants. It might have taken clairvoyance, however, to foresee the unintended negative consequences of technologies first thought to provide great boons to civilization.