The moment I knew for sure that Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage had some serious chops was about 10 years ago, when I spotted a long line of engineers waiting for their autographs after they spoke at an engineering software conference. They had arrived.
This happened a few years after Hyneman and Savage had already established themselves as televisions stars, and it turns out that there was much more to their show, MythBusters, than strong ratings. MythBusters began on the Discovery Channel in 2003 and was a quick hit. But the pseudo reality show—and the special effects specialists who hosted it—hit a sweet spot among engineers as well.
In each episode, Hyneman and Savage would try to expose or confirm an urban legend, such as: Can a penny dropped from the top of a skyscraper kill a person standing on the ground? Can chatting on a cell phone while pumping gas cause the pump to blow up? Will launching a chicken at an airplane disrupt its flight, or will the bird be blown away? (You’ll have to catch the re-runs for answers.)
But it was more than simple amusement that made the show noteworthy. For engineers and other technologists, MythBusters—which ended its run earlier this year after 248 episodes that covered 2,950 experiments, explored 1,050 myths, and created 900 explosions—elevated public interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and helped usher in the so-called Maker movement.
The show also hit home because at their core, engineers are tinkerers who elevated their passion with a university degree.
The two hosts, an odd couple of sorts (one was the straight man to the other’s gags) were not engineers—though Hyneman received an honorary doctorate, in 2011, for his role in popularizing science and technology—but they took a engineering and scientific approach to their experiments. Because they were tinkerers, things didn’t always go right. That was part of the appeal.
Like some others before them—Bill Nye the Science Guy for one—Hyneman and Savage will be remembered for exposing science and engineering through the public forum of television. When news broke that MythBusters would be canceled after 14 seasons, Twitter was flooded with users crediting the show for their interest in science and technology. Many college students sent messages of thanks for inspiring them to study engineering.
MythBusters didn’t pretend to be more than it was when it came to the engineering and scientific rigor of its experiments. But the program was fascinating because it toiled in finding answers through engineering and science—and because it was good television.
To find theses answers, the hosts built the contraptions they used to test the myths. While they’re not credited with creating the Maker or the Do It Yourself movements, their garage tinkering reinforced those movements. It bolstered those who like to build, who like to fix, and who are curious.
MythBusters stimulated the young and the old… and the engineer.