Orson Welles And the Pre-Internet “War of the Worlds”

On October 30 in 1938, the 23-year-old Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater Company broadcast a radio version of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds on CBS. Famously, the radio broadcast would cause some people to panic, believing that the world actually was being invaded by Martians.

Orson Welles did not intend the broadcast as a hoax, even though it was broadcast like a news story. At the start of the show at 8:00 p.m., an announcement introduced the program as a reworking of the H.G. Wells story. But many viewers turned in late, including those who changed the station after listening to Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy on an NBC show that ended at 8:12 p.m.

Reportedly, up to a million people around the country believed the radio broadcast covered a real invasion, and people panicked, doing such things as trying to get gas masks. During the broadcast, Welles went on the air again to remind viewers it was fiction. Slate, however, recently wrote about how the legend about mass panic really grew out of a very small number of instances.

After the broadcast, Welles worried that the reactions would ruin his career. But, like today, most media attention is good attention. And Welles of course went on to bigger and better things.

Today, sit back, close your eyes and imagine you are hearing the broadcast for the first time on the radio, with no cable news, Internet, or cell phone to let you immediately check everything.

What is your favorite hoax? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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