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1930s & Earlier / Martian Invasion Panic - 1938
On Sunday, October 30, 1938, a young Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre On The Air presented their version of H.G. Wells' 1895 science fiction novel 'War of the Worlds' as a radio drama on CBS. About two-thirds of the 55-minute broadcast comprised of faux news bulletins. They began with accounts of a supposed meteorite landing in a New Jersey township which turned out to be a Martian spacecraft. The aliens then began a reign of terror across New Jersey and into New York City, killing everyone with heat rays and poison gas. The show was given an air of authenticity by using interviews with various fictitious officials and a bogus Princeton astronomy professor who speculated on the Martians' strength and motives for invasion. Although the broadcast featured no fewer than four instances when it was declared to be a radio drama, many people did not hear these disclaimers. Civil authorities were inundated by telephone calls. Panic was especially high in some parts of Washington state where a power outage coincidentally occurred just after the part of the broadcast where the Martians began their destructive rampage. It is estimated that six million Americans heard at least a portion of the broadcast, and about 1.7 million of them thought it was real. Still, most radio listeners that night were oblivious to the so-called 'panic.' Welles' broadcast ran opposite the hugely popular Edgar Bergen program on NBC.