Scares Pants Off…
October 30, 1938: War of The Worlds Scares Pants Off Nation
Orson Welles broadcasts his radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which reportedly caused panic among listeners who believed the theatrical presentation was a real news broadcast. War of the Worlds is one of the most famous radio broadcasts in history.
Many people in the audience missed the repeated notices about the broadcast being fictional. Many listeners began tuning in after a Chase and Sanborn comic sketch ended and a musical number began. According to the American Experience program, Welles knew the schedule of Chase and Sanborn and scheduled the first report from Grover’s Mill at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience’s confusion.
As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft. Because the broadcast was unsponsored, Welles and company could schedule breaks at will rather than structuring them around necessary advertisements. As a result, the only notices that the broadcast was fictional came at the start of the broadcast and about 40 and 55 minutes into it.
Studies by unnamed historians calculated that some 6 million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were “genuinely frightened”.
In the aftermath of the reported panic, CBS responded to public outcry by pointing to reminders throughout the broadcast that it was a performance. Welles and Mercury Theatre escaped punishment but not censure; CBS is believed to have had to promise never again to use “we interrupt this program” for dramatic effect. However, many radio commercials to this day do start with the phrase “We interrupt this program”.
Many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes (size 9B) by a Massachusetts man, who spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles insisted the man be paid.
The Martians travel to the Earth in cylinders fired from a huge space gun on the surface of Mars. This was a common representation of space travel in the nineteenth century. Although modern scientific understanding renders this idea impractical, the 16 year old Robert H. Goddard was inspired by the H. G. Welles story and spent much of his life inventing rockets. The research into rockets begun by Goddard eventually culminated in the Apollo program’s manned landing on the moon.
He has been called the man who ushered in the Space Age and came to be recognized as the founding father of modern rocketry.