As Americans curled up in front of their cathedral-like contraptions called radios, they tuned into CBS to listen to the Mercury Theatre on October 30, 1938. At first they heard the strains of the Ramon Raquello Orchestra, but it was soon paused for the words "We interrupt this program". A broadcaster proceeded to describe a meteorite which had hit Grover's Hill, New Jersey, near Princeton University. However, with more reports coming in, listeners learned that the meteorite was really a space capsule and an alien had emerged from the capsule. Americans hunched over their radios, hearts racing, as they heard that Martians were headed across the Hudson River to invade New York City. Newspapers, radio stations and police stations were flooded with phone calls wanting updates on the crisis. Some Americans hid in their basements; others loaded their shotguns; still others hopped in their Model T's and Model A's and headed out of town, crowding the highways. Twenty families in Newark, New Jersey emerged from their houses with wet towels over their heads to protect themselves from the poisonous gases used by the aliens.
CBS reported that 6 million viewers tuned in to the broadcast "The War of the Worlds" in 1938. Written and directed by Orson Welles, the radio play was an adaptation of the 1898 science fiction novel by H. G. Wells. It is estimated that 1 million of those viewers believed the broadcast to be true. Given that Americans were accustomed to radio programs being interrupted (the Munich Crisis had brought the world to the brink of war only a month before) they were already in a panic-stricken state of mind and ripe for a such a hoax.
But when the nation did go to war only three years later after Pearl Harbor was bombed, apparently many Americans reacted skeptically to radio broadcasts about the attack. Radio listeners would never have that same naivete as they did on that night 73 years ago.
2. National Geographic News, June 17, 2005.
Photo courtesy National Geographic News.
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