Today In History: War of the Worlds Terrifies Nation

Today In History |

October 30, 1938

Smithsonian Magazine

Today in 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles would spread pandemonium throughout the United States with his radio rendition of War of the Worlds. Welles, a young but experienced radio actor, did not anticipate his fictitious reading being widely interpreted as real.

The broadcast was aired on the evening of the 30th, a Sunday, at 8pm - prime listening hours. Despite the fact that it was prefaced with an announcement reading "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in 'War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells," many Americans believed the narrative to be literal reporting of an alien invasion. Millions missed the preface, tuning into War of the Worlds at 8:12, after a routine by a ventriloquist named Edgar Bergen.

People late to the broadcast heard a concert being interrupted by an announcement that "Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory" had witnessed explosions on the surface of Mars. The concert was again interrupted by an announcement that a meteor had crashed into New Jersey, followed by a reporter describing a tentacled monster emerging from a tube at the crash site.


The aliens mounted an assault on Earth, climbing into huge tripod vehicles and leveling a National Guard force with heat rays. They also filled the air with poisonous gas. The scenes were described by Welles and a supporting cast of skilled radio actors, whose portrayals were so realistic that millions of Americans panicked. New Jersey highways were packed with cars attempting to flee the marauding aliens. Electric companies across the country were asked to shut down their grids, to plunge the aliens into darkness.

Welles was eventually advised of what his radio play was doing to the country, and made an announcement mid-broadcast that it was all a work of fiction. Welles worried that the disaster would ruin his career. To the contrary, it was his golden ticket to Hollywood, where he would leave his indelible impression on film with Citizen Kane in 1941.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.