Oct. 30, 1938, Radio Adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds Panics America

« Previous story
Next story »
Oct. 30, 1938, Radio Adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds Panics America

Headline for The New York Times, October 31, 1938 (late city edition)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in History: October 30, 1938

While today's story is very obliquely military, as a huge fan of science fiction – as well as just about anything military – I felt an obligation to present this story. It is also the 75th anniversary of the original broadcast.


British author Herbert George Wells (aka H.G. Wells) was born in 1866. He had taught biology for several years, and had even written a biology textbook. However, he began writing "scientific romances" to supplement his income. [The term "science fiction" did not exist at that time, not being coined until sometime in the 1920s or 1930s.]

H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

Wells wrote War of the Worlds between 1895 and 1897. It was serialized in Pearson's Magazine in 1897, and published in book form in 1898. Wells had previously written The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897). [Coincidentally, all of these books have been made into films.]

War of the Worlds can trace its roots, to some extent, to a genre of British fiction called "invasion literature," in which a ruthless enemy would launch an unexpected invasion of England (the enemy was usually either Germany or France). In addition, scientific speculation about the habitability of the various planets in our solar system contributed to Wells's hypothesis of an invasion of Earth by inhabitants of Mars, the nearest planet. There were also story threads in the novel that can be traced to evolution, ecology, social Darwinism, imperialism, colonialism, and religion. In addition, Wells considered himself something of a pacifist.

Upon publication, War of the Worlds was a best seller, and is still in print after 110+ years.

"Mercury Theatre on the Air" and Orson Welles

Forty years after the initial publication of the War of the Worlds, the invention of the radio had spawned hundreds of radio stations from coast-to-coast in the U.S. A number of networks had been created, one was the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Among the many radio programs broadcast on CBS was the "Mercury Theatre on the Air."

This radio program was a direct descendant of the Mercury Theatre, a repertory company located in New York City, which produced a number of innovative plays – including a retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth set in contemporary Haiti and with a cast consisting entirely of African-Americans. The two movers-and-shakers behind the Mercury Theatre were producer John Houseman and a 22-year-old executive director, producer, and actor named Orson Welles.

Orson Welles (1915-1985); Photograph taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1937
Orson Welles (1915-1985)
Photograph taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1937

Welles had worked in the theater since 1931, and was considered something of a prodigy. He and Houseman had met while working in the Federal Theatre, a Depression-era division of the Works Progress Administration, which put out-of-work actors back on stage. In 1937, the two men formed the Mercury Theatre. One year later, CBS gave the Mercury Theatre its own one-hour radio show, with many of the actors from the Mercury Theatre transferring their talents to the airwaves. Beginning in July of 1938, the "Mercury Theatre on the Air" would produce radio plays based on great works of literature. These shows included Dracula, Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. For most of 1938, the "Mercury Theatre" was presented as a sustaining program, meaning that it was produced without the benefit of a major sponsor. Initially airing Monday nights at 9:00 pm, the show moved to Sunday nights at 8:00 pm in early September.

"The Night That Panicked America" – Sunday, October 30, 1938

On October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theatre on the Air presented Around the World in Eighty Days. In the new week, several small stories appeared in newspapers nationwide stating that the next presentation of the Mercury Theatre would be an adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Welles made the decision to update the story from late 19th century London to contemporary America, specifically Grover's Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey. The program's format was a (simulated) live newscast of developing events.

The program, broadcast from the 20th floor at 485 Madison Avenue in New York City, starts with an introduction from the novel, describing the intentions of the aliens and noting that the adaptation is set in 1939, a year ahead of the actual broadcast date. The program continues with a weather report and an ordinary dance band remote featuring "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" (actually the CBS orchestra) that is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars. Welles makes his first appearance as the (fictional) famous astronomer and Princeton professor Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars.

The news grows more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site. A reporter relates the events. The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine. Onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian inside before it incinerates the crowd with heat-rays. The shouts of the reporters about incoming flames are cut off in mid-sentence. (Later surveys indicate that many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many contacted others in turn, leading to rumors and confusion.)

Regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles with casualty updates, firefighting developments and the like. A shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology. The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder; a message from their field headquarters lectures about the overwhelming force of properly equipped infantry and the helplessness of the Martians in Earth's gravity until a Tripod alien fighting machine rears up from the pit.

Martian tripod on the attack, illustration by Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa; From the 1906 French edition of War of the Worlds
Martian tripod on the attack, illustration by Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa
From the 1906 French edition of War of the Worlds

The Martians obliterate the militia, and the studio returns, now describing the Martians as an invading army. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage reports and evacuation instructions as millions of refugees clog the roads. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder as gas explosions continue. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior advises the nation. (The secretary was originally intended to be a portrayal of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but CBS insisted this detail be changed. Nonetheless, Welles directed the actor to imitate Roosevelt's voice.)

A live connection is established to a field artillery battery. Its gun crew reports damaging one machine and a release of black smoke/poison gas before fading into the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as their engines are burned by the Heat-Ray and the plane dives on the invaders. Radio operators go active and fall silent, most right after reporting the approach of the black smoke. The bombers destroyed one machine, but cylinders are falling all across the country.

This section ends famously: A news reporter, broadcasting from atop the CBS building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City – "five great machines" wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River "like rats", others "falling like flies" – until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas. Finally, a despairing ham radio operator is heard calling, "… Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?"

After an intermission for station identification, in which the announcer mentions that the show is fiction, the last third of the broadcast is a monologue and dialogue. Welles returns as Professor Pierson, describing the aftermath of the attacks. The story ends, as does the novel, with the Martians falling victim to earthly pathogenic germs, to which they have no immunity.

After the play, Welles informally breaks character to remind listeners that the broadcast was a Halloween concoction, the equivalent, as he puts it, "of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo!'". [Popular mythology holds this "disclaimer" was hastily added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives as they became aware of panic inspired by the program; in fact, it had appeared in Koch's working script for the play.]


The program was not even over when newspapers, radio stations, and police and fire departments began receiving hundreds of frantic calls from the public because of the radio broadcast. Newspapers nationwide published stories – many now downplayed as "yellow journalism" – about the panic caused by the realistic portrayal of a work of fiction. Nonetheless, The New York Times of October 31 reported dozens of incidents of hysteria and panic throughout the country traced to the too-realistic broadcast.

[Coincidentally, there was a widespread "brown-out" in areas of New Jersey during the early evening of October 30, which no doubt contributed to the hysteria when the Welles broadcast occurred.]

Another possible contributing factor for the widespread panic was – channel surfing, to use the modern term. At the same time as the "Mercury Theatre" was presenting WOTW, the NBC radio network was airing the Charlie McCarthy Show, a variety program hosted by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his "partner" Charlie McCarthy. About 10 minutes into the NBC program, a singer was introduced to the radio audience. At that time, many listeners began searching the radio dial for other programs, waiting for the return of Bergen and McCarthy. As a result, many listeners missed the opening introduction and only heard the sensational "We interrupt this program" bulletins.

Charlie McCarty & Edgar Bergen, c. 1938 [Image courtesy of http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk]
Charlie McCarty & Edgar Bergen, c. 1938
[Image courtesy of http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk]

In answer to public scrutiny, CBS executives pointed out that newspapers throughout the country had carried announcements of the radio dramatization of H.G. Wells's novel. Also, it was pointed out that there were three times during the broadcast – at the beginning, and at the 40- and 55-minute marks – that the public was told they were listening to a dramatic radio show. Due to the fact that the "Mercury Theatre on the Air" had no corporate sponsor, it was not obligated to take scheduled commercial breaks. This fact added to the realism of the show.

Another definite contributing factor to the panic was growing fear over Germany and its territorial demands, slowly pushing the world toward war. Only a month before, the Reich had acquired Sudetenland, an area of then-Czechoslovakia bordering the Reich which was inhabited by many ethnic Germans. This crisis culminated in the infamous Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany.

Footnote #1: One interesting result of the Welles broadcast is that the "Mercury Theatre on the Air" acquired a corporate sponsor. Beginning on December 8, 1938, the show changed its name to the "Campbell Playhouse," sponsored by the Campbell Soup Company. ["Mm-mm, good!"]

Footnote #2: On October 28, 1940, Orson Welles met H.G. Wells in San Antonio, Texas. Local radio station KTSA recorded the conversation, which was likely the only meeting between the two. Wells expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and suggested it may have been only pretense, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked with embarrassment about the matter.

First Martian
First Martian "tripod" appears in War of the Worlds (1953 film)
[Image courtesy of http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk]

Footnote #3: The best known movie version of War of the Worlds was surely the 1953 film, starring Gene Barry. Like Orson Welles's radio drama 15 years earlier, the initial landing of the Martians was switched to California. Even using modern technology – including an atomic bomb – against the invaders, Earth was again saved by microbes attacking the Martians' immune systems. The movie was the top-grossing sci-fi film of 1953, was nominated for three Academy Awards, and won a single Oscar for Special Effects. [In an homage to the 1953 film, the former cable TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 named one of its characters after Gene Barry's role, Dr. Clayton Forrester.]

Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 [Image courtesy of http://www.dodlive.mil]
Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) of Mystery Science Theatre 3000
[Image courtesy of http://www.dodlive.mil]

Footnote #4: In February 1949, Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz produced a Spanish-language version of Welles's 1938 script for Radio Quito in Quito, Ecuador. The broadcast set off panic in the city. Police and fire brigades rushed out of town to engage the supposed alien invasion force. After it was revealed that the broadcast was fiction, the panic transformed into a riot. Hundreds attacked Radio Quito and El Comercio, a local newspaper that had participated in the hoax by publishing false reports of unidentified objects in the skies above Ecuador in the days preceding the broadcast. The riot resulted in at least seven deaths, including those of Paez's girlfriend and nephew. Paez moved to Venezuela after the incident.

Footnote #5: In December of 1988, the original radio script for The War of the Worlds was sold at auction at Sotheby's in New York by author Howard Koch. The typescript bears the handwritten deletions and additions of Orson Welles and producer John Houseman. It was thought to have been the only copy of the script known to survive. Expected to bring between $25,000 and $35,000, the script sold for $143,000 — setting a record for an article of entertainment memorabilia.

A second surviving War of the Worlds radio script — Welles's own directorial copy, given to an associate for safekeeping — was auctioned June 2, 1994, at Christie's in New York. Estimated to bring $15,000 to $20,000, the script was sold for $32,200. The successful bidder was filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who adapted The War of the Worlds for a feature film in 2005.

Posted in top stories | 0 comments
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.