“It burst into flames, it burst into flames!” he cried. “And it’s falling, it’s crashing …it’s crashing terrible … Oh, the humanity … oh, ladies and gentlemen …”
These were the words of a Chicago radio reporter, Herbert Morrison, who bore witness to the raging inferno. His phrase, “Oh, the humanity” is remembered today and is as powerful now as it was on 6 May 1937, when the legendary zeppelin caught fire and crashed in a New Jersey field, killing more than 30 people.
Of the 97 people on board, 62 miraculously escaped the burning wreckage. But 22 crew members, 13 passengers, and one worker on the ground were killed.
Was the Hindenburg disaster one of the very first media events to be covered live (sort of live) and reported in near real-time? These days, media is almost always delivered in real-time, by both professional and amateur content creators, it is shared in a fraction of a second around the globe. The role of the ‘citizen journalist’ is by far the most significant change in media forever changing the way we all consume our daily news. But, in 1937, the world of media was just emerging. There was no internet. So, this report set the stage of how we create and report events today.
Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been assigned by radio station WLS in Chicago to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg in New Jersey for delayed broadcast.
Radio network policy in those days forbade the use of any other recorded material than that used for sound effects, and Morrison and Nehlsen had no facilities for a true live broadcast. Even so, the results still became the prototype for news broadcasting in the war years that followed. The event had no effect on this no live policy, and recordings were not regularly used until after the end of World War II. But, the ‘reporter on the scene’ approach describing the details with passion and tone to ‘share’ the experience is aligned to our citizen journalist approach today. The linkage from this first report to today’s internet reports is strong.
Morrison’s description began routinely, but it changed instantly as the airship burst into flames. His report will stand forever as one of the first original broadcast transmissions of a (quasi) live event.
Among those on the ground, Herbert Morrison, who managed to keep his composure just long enough to utter one of the most famous lines in broadcasting history made history.
“Oh, the humanity,” Morrison, obviously overcome with emotion, cried into his microphone as the Hindenburg crashed.
Morrison’s famous description of the disaster as it unfolded was not actually heard until the next day. He had come to Lakehurst from Chicago to do a story on the Hindenburg that was to be aired at a later date, and did not have equipment for a live broadcast. But his report sounded like it was a like news hit and it was this narrative that caught the audiences’ attention and revisited them to the emotion of the event.
It was not until Morrison returned to station WLS in Chicago the next day that his famous description was broadcast around the world.
Even more shocking for the public was the silent film newsreel footage, which showed the biggest aircraft ever built being reduced to smoldering embers in about a half-minute.
That newsreel footage would make it into theaters in the following weeks, and it was then that the Hindenburg became synonymous with “disaster.”
The story was further amped up when the Morrison radio audio track was married to the film footage and the rest is media broadcast history.
Cowen, R. (2002). 60 years later, Hindenburg crash still a mystery. The Baltimore Sun and Knight Ridder/Tribune. Retrieved November 15, 2018 from, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2002-05-12/news/0205110111_1_hindenburg-lakehurst-newsreel
Walters, J. (2017). The Hindenburg disaster, 80 years on: a ‘perfect storm of circumstances’. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved November 15, 2018 from, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/07/hindenburg-disaster-80th-anniversary
Photo credit: Getty: The Daily Star.
Photo credit: Ewing Galloway / Alamy
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.
He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.