On the 30th October 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds as part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Despite its relatively low audience figures, the broadcast became famous for causing mass panic amongst American citizens.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a series of weekly one-hour radio plays created by Orson Welles and broadcast on the CBS Radio network. The War of the Worlds was the seventeenth episode of the radio show, and was adapted by American playwright Howard E. Koch who is probably best known for later co-writing the film Casablanca. For War of the Worlds Koch took the general story arc from H. G. Wells’ original novel but substituted 19th Century Europe for 20th Century America, changing the names of locations and personalities to ones that were more familiar and contemporary. Amazingly he was only asked to write the script a week before the broadcast.

Before the live broadcast itself had finished on the night of the 30th October, CBS began to receive telephone calls from concerned listeners. Announcements were made before, during and after the performance that the events were fictitious but it was clear that these warnings went unheeded by many. Although the listening figures were relatively small, news of the alien invasion spread through a country nervous about impending war. Within hours of the broadcast the billboards in New York’s Times Square flashed with reports of mass panic caused by the play, although subsequent research suggests that the panic was nowhere near the scale claimed at the time.

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