Obituary: Kerr, 97, Made Kits for Young Einsteins
James S. Kerr, whose American Basic Science Club kits fired up kids'
interest in chemistry, physics and even nuclear physics and steered
them toward careers in science and engineering, has died at 97.
He died Tuesday after a stroke a few days earlier.
Through his kits, advertised in comic books and other magazines,
students could learn about electronics, optics, photography,
computers, light and weather.
Each kit, touted in ads as a "low-cost introduction to the wonderful
world of science," cost $3.45.
The atomic energy lab, which came out in 1960, featured three
experimental setups and two radioactive sources.
Youngsters who bought the weather station kit found a cloud chart
and forecasting manual, a remote reading wind vane and anemometer, a
rain gauge and barometer.
Sold separately were manuals that taught how to earn a ham license
or learn about radio-TV servicing.
"It was an apprenticeship by mail," said Dr. Barry Ungerleider, a
clinical researcher working on pain relieving laser therapy in
"Jimmy put science in my hands when I was just a kid, and from there
I became a scientist," said Ungerleider, a member of the club from
1957 to 1959. "And I wasn't the only one; I'm sure thousands of
others became scientists because of him."
The amazing thing is that Kerr was not a scientist. He left college
after two years, built levees on the Mississippi River and sold
appliances before World War II.
After serving in North Africa and Italy, he opened the James Kerr
Co., an appliance store, in the 1800 block of Broadway.
In 1956, the year he closed the store, Kerr founded the American
Basic Science Club.
"I had been taking electronics study courses and reading, and I got
to thinking about teaching kids to build simple things," Kerr told
San Antonio Express-News Metro columnist Carlos Guerra last year in
the only interview he ever gave.
"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," Kerr added. "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."
Niece Genevieve Kerr said Kerr's wife, Rosemary, helped him put the
"Together, they wrote and edited the instruction booklets until they
were exactly right," Genevieve Kerr said.
Test ads produced less than 60 replies. But a 1957 ad in Boys' Life
magazine produced spectacular results, with students — and teachers
— signing up for the kits.
Kerr operated the company for nearly 30 years. Later, he built a
large optical illusion chamber he retooled and installed for display
in Dallas' "The Science Place" museum. The museum is now called the
Museum of Nature & Science.
Genevieve Kerr said that after her uncle's retirement, he published
"It illustrated and described a unique, easy method of drawing
intricate, beautiful, fascinating and mathematically precise
geometric patterns," she said.
James Storm Kerr
Born: July 28, 1909, in Brookhaven, Miss.
Died: Sept. 19, 2006, in San Antonio
Survived by: His wife of 58 years, Rosemary Luckett
Kerr; a daughter, Katharine Luckett Kerr of San
Antonio; a son, James Daugherty Kerr III of Austin;
and two granddaughters, Dylan Kerr Davies of Santa Fe,
N.M., and Christina Evelyn Kerr of Austin.
Service: Memorial service Friday at 3 p.m. at the
Alamo Heights Presbyterian Church at 6201 Broadway.
Web Posted: 09/24/2006 09:24 PM CDT