Today, listen, with me, to an old radio.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Childhood in the
late 1930s: The vivid image of my family gathered
around the radio in the evening. It was a modest
wooden box with a rounded top. But, look in its
open back, and you'd see its bright glowing tubes
-- an amber Christmas crèche, that had the
mysterious power to pluck adventure out of the
aether and bring it into our living room.
After school we'd listen to The Lone
Ranger and Jack Armstrong. But in the
evening it was the grownup stuff: Jack
Benny, Fred Allen, all kinds of good
music. Naturally, I'll never forget that October
evening when my father tuned in to the Mercury
Theater, just a minute or two late. An agitated
network announcer was telling about a huge meteor
that had landed in central New Jersey.
Then he switched to a mobile unit. Something
strange was happening. Something was coming out of
the crater -- something alive!
And the game was afoot. This was the most famous
single radio show ever broadcast -- Orson Welles's
version of H.G. Wells's story,
The War of the Worlds. By 7:15 the full
fury of the invaders from Mars was clear.
They were moving across America, toward my gentle
home in Minnesota, killing everyone and everything
in sight. When the station break came, I laid my
delicious thrill of terror before my father. Was
this real? I asked. He smiled and said, "I don't
know. We'd better stay tuned." I was almost
disappointed when it turned out to be make-believe.
Earth was safe -- at least until World War II.
Radio served the same function that Grimm's fairy
tales had served for children of an earlier time.
It stretched our minds. It showed us the world of
good and evil, honor and deceit, pain and pleasure.
It sketched the story and let our imaginations fill
in the details.
I listened as Joe Louis -- larger than life --
destroyed the German champion Max Schmelling in the
first two minutes of the first round. (None of us
suspected, after that beating, that Schmelling and
Lewis were actually friends, and that their
friendship would remain intact after the war.)
I was there listening when the announcer at the
landing of the Zeppelin Hindenburg in Lakehurst,
saw it catch fire. His voice rose over the
crackle of static and flames while he watched what
no human being should ever have to watch. I learned
the difference between fantasy and reality when he
broke down and wept, Oh, the humanity!
All that seems to've happened only yesterday. And,
at the same time, it seems a thousand years ago.
Most commercial radio today seems bent on
fragmenting our attention -- whatever falls between
commercials has to be simple enough not to distract
us from the commercial.
The radio of my childhood was more naive. It copied
the stage -- the theater -- the town meeting. It
engaged us; it led us into our right brain; it
touched our hearts; it made us free. It did what
Public Radio still strives to do today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 195.
Sculpture of 1930s radio-listening found at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC.
It is remarkably faithful to radio-listening as I recall it from childhood. (Photo by John Lienhard)