81 years ago, at 8 pm Eastern time in the US, if you were listening to the radio, you’d have heard a fairly normal broadcast. It was then increasingly interrupted by news reports culminating in the announcement that martians had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. The story was an adaptation of a novel by H.G. Wells in 1898. The broadcast ultimately cemented Orson Welles as a premiere broadcaster.
The one-hour program began with the theme music for the Mercury Theatre on the Air and an announcement that the evening’s show was an adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles then read a prologue which was closely based on the opening of H.G. Wells’ novel modified slightly to move the story’s setting to 1939. For about the next twenty minutes, the broadcast was presented as a typical evening of radio programming being interrupted by a series of news bulletins. The first few news flashes occur during a presentation of “live” music and describe a series of odd explosions observed on Mars, followed by a seemingly unrelated report of an unusual object falling on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
The musical program returns briefly before being interrupted by a live report from Grover’s Mill, where police officials and a crowd of curious onlookers have surrounded the strange cylindrical object that fell from the sky. The situation escalates when Martians emerge from the cylinder and attack using a heat-ray, which the panicked reporter at the scene describes until his audio feed abruptly goes dead. This is followed by a rapid series of increasingly alarming news updates detailing a devastating alien invasion taking place around the world and the futile efforts of the U.S. military to stop it. The first portion of the show climaxes with another live report from a Manhattan rooftop as giant Martian war machines release clouds of poisonous smoke across New York City.
(Ed. note: this rooftop may or may not be the one at the current Adafruit factory).
The reporter on the scene describes desperate citizens fleeing as the smoke approaches his location until he coughs and falls silent, after which the program took its first break. During the second half of the show, the style shifts to a more conventional radio drama format and follows a survivor (played by Welles) dealing with the aftermath of the invasion and the ongoing Martian occupation of Earth. As in the original novel, the story ends with the discovery that the Martians have been defeated by microbes rather than by humans.
Welles’s’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast has become famous for supposedly tricking some of its listeners into believing that a Martian invasion was actually taking place due to the “breaking news” style of storytelling employed in the first half of the show. The illusion of realism was furthered because the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show without commercial interruptions, and the first break in the program came almost 30 minutes after the introduction.