Which science fiction book was adapted for a radio broadcast in 1938, and narrated as if Earth was under attack?

And the answer: War of the Worlds.    
Photo credit: public domain. 

Originally serialized in an 1897 magazine, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was first published as a full novel in 1898. In 1938, the book was adapted for a Halloween radio broadcast and narrated in the present tense by actor and producer Orson Welles. Although most knew it was fiction, some listeners believed Martians were attacking Earth in real time.

127 years ago, one man’s voice rang out across ships from New England to Virginia. Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden wasn’t the first to experiment with radio transmissions, but his successful ability to host a holiday broadcast across the Atlantic seaboard in 1906 was certainly a first. In 1910, tenor Enrico Caruso took it a step further by delivering his sound directly to locations across New York City. The world had never before witnessed such quick, wireless communication, and radio soon began to attract avid “fans.”

In the early days of radio—or more accurately, “wireless telephony,” as it was known at the time—fans weren’t respected for their purely hobbyist enjoyment of radio technology. They were seen as mere spectators to the real practice of radio transmission, without having contributed to it at either the sending or receiving end. Yet, undeterred, popular interest in radio technology continued to grow. This highly technical leisure activity soon grew from a smattering of coils and wires in a backyard garage, to a full-fledged industry by the 1920s. In 1922, the United States made radio licenses available to broadcasters, and several hundred stations were founded.

As election days came and went, Americans soon began to realize the invaluable asset of radio transmissions. Never had news arrived so quickly or messages been shared with such ease. Incredibly, from 1922 to 1923, the number of radio sets in the United States increased from 60,000 to 1.5 million. In 1922, there were 28 stations in operation, and by 1924, there were 1,400. For the first several decades of its existence, radio existed primarily on the local and university level. But as more capital opportunities expanded in the market and more Americans bought sets for their homes, by the 1930s, it was clear that a Golden Age of radio had set forth. From FDR’s Fireside Chats to everyday sermons on the air, radio had become an indispensable part of life.

Throughout the 1940s, interest grew in the idea of publicly funded broadcasting. President Lyndon Johnson had supported the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, yet when the committee recommended federal funding for television alone, several radio professionals objected. Radio was successfully included as a result, and Johnson’s 1967 Public Broadcasting Act established the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, in turn, created National Public Radio in 1969.

Did you know?

Yesterday, 123 years ago, was the official birth of the public radio broadcast! The anniversary marks the date that Enrico Caruso’s first public broadcast rang out across New York City. Learn more about the history of public broadcasting here.


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