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 projects." 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 Portions 2006 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.

Return to ABSC Page