MySA.com: Carlos Guerra
Web Posted: 11/27/2005 12:00 AM CST
San Antonio Express-News
Sputnik-era Promoter of Science Education Recalls the Times
After living in San Antonio 72 years, James S. Kerr's gentle manner
still reveals his working-class Southern roots. The 96-year-old
remembers that his early days were simpler, but they were also
harder: The Great Depression truncated his college education.
"I had two years (of college), but I had to get out and got a job
building levees on the Mississippi River," he says. But by then, his
love of science, and insatiable drive to show off its wonders, was
deeply rooted. And decades later — at his wife Rosemary's insistence
— he embarked on a project that awakened that curiosity in thousands
of American kids, some of whom helped turn America's technology gap
of the 1950s into a golden age of scientific innovation.
In 1933, Kerr hopped a train out of Louisiana and ended up in San
Antonio, where he found work. But after Pearl Harbor, he laughs, "I
volunteered because they were about to draft me."
He became a fighter-plane controller and served in various posts
before returning to San Antonio and opening an appliance store. But
the store's early success fell victim to the new discount retailers.
By 1956, as the Kerrs were liquidating, Jimmy was fine-tuning his
next venture — in science.
"I had been taking electronics study courses and reading, and I got
to thinking about teaching kids to build simple things," he says.
"That's how I started the American Basic Science Club, and the idea
was to do experiments with each part as they went along.
"It wasn't to hook A to B and B to C and it works," he says. "You
got a capacitor and did experiments with it so you knew what it did;
same with resistors and everything else. It was eight kits and the
first four were electronics."
The monthly $3.45 kits included everything needed for the
experiments Kerr's carefully written books walked kids through. The
first kit about basic electronics was followed by three whose
experiments built on earlier lessons. In Kit Four, kids built a
working radio transmitter into which they could connect the
microphones they had built earlier. Other kits covered light,
optics, energy, computing, weather, and the last kit, on atomic
energy, even included "safe radioactive materials."
Having failed once, Kerr nervously ran test ads offering his
eight-kit science study course.
And he got only 56 replies.
"He was so discouraged," Rosemary says, "and I said, 'We can do
this; I'll stop playing bridge and leave my church circle to help.'"
So in 1957, Kerr ran another ad in Boys' Life magazine, and suddenly
the orders poured in — and kept coming for years. Of course, that
year, Americans were stunned when the Soviets put Sputnik I into
orbit while U.S. rockets kept failing regularly — on live TV.
And ironically, the successes of Kerr's little future scientists
eventually took their toll on his business. Transistors, for
example, made his electronic kits obsolete and impossible to upgrade
"because with transistors there's nothing to see," he chuckles.
But today, the kits are prized collectables among scientists, and a
review of his atomic energy kit in one university Web site raves
about its instructional value because "it doesn't present the
experiments on a silver platter; they are all mini construction
Asked if it isn't again time to reawaken American kids' interest in
science, Kerr paused before musing: "It would be good, but today,
kids live in spotless homes that don't have a messy garage where
they can mess around with all kinds of things and learn."
To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail
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