On many fronts, 1937 wasn't altogether a great year. The United States was still attempting to recover from the Great Depression, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared after taking off from New Guinea, Japan occupied Beijing, the Great Hong Kong Typhoon killed 11,000 people, Italy withdrew from the League of Nations. John D Rockefeller, George Gershwin, and Jean Harlow died. In April of 1937 German warplanes from the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion destroyed the Basque town of Guernica during what was reported as the first air bombardment of an undefended town in history; more than 1,600 civilians were killed.
And, the Baltimore News-Post ran this this headline in May:
1937, Baltimore News-Post Reported: Hindenburg Explodes
Earlier that year WLS, Chicago's powerhouse of a radio station, dispatched announcer Herb Morrison and his engineer, Charlie Nelhsen, to cover the Hindenburg landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Morrison's report was to be recorded on a large acetate disk for later broadcast. Recording news and actualities was, in 1937, against all the rules of network radio broadcasting. Morrison's recorded report lead to a change of those rules, which at the time only allowed recordings to be used for sound effects in radio dramas. Morrison's report was so human and so compelling that NBC played the recording on it's network and it became the prototype for news actualities in the post war years.
Morrison was a slender, diminutive man with dark hair, dimples, and a strong chin. On the air, he sounded older than his years. He was dapper, and by all accounts he was exceedingly handsome. Prior to his dispatch to Lakehurst, the majority of his radio work had been as an announcer for live musical programming. For the Hindenburg report from Lakehurst he wore a blue serge suit and a tailored top coat.
Today most people see, or remember, a newsreel of the Hindenburg disaster with Morrison's account as the voice-over. However, that's a later construction of how the actual reports were filed, seen, and heard.
Even in 1937 newsreels were a low-budget affair. Black and white cameras with no ability to record sound were used. And Morrison and his one-man crew were recording a transcription to a disk with no ability to add visuals. Think of what you remember seeing as one of the earliest audio-visual mashups.
Here is an actual (and yes, silent) newsreel from the time with post production, editing, and a certain amount of 'film touch-up' as performed by the releasing studio.
And this, from the Smithsonian, is Herb Morrison's radio report added to actual newsreel film, without any film reconstruction. The difference in film quality is all-telling.
According to WLS radio: Listeners in Chicago and across the country didn't hear Morrison's coverage of the disaster until the next day because his report wasn't broadcast live from Lakehurst. He and engineer Charley Nehlsen had been experimenting with field recordings on huge acetate discs. They realized the gravity of their recordings as they found themselves being followed by German SS Officers! After hiding out for a few hours, the two managed to make a clean getaway and get back across the country to WLS. The chilling account aired the next day on the station and was the first recorded radio news report to be broadcast nationally by NBC.
I've been fascinated by lighter-than-air craft, zeppelins, and blimps for as long as I can remember. In Baltimore we all see quite a few small blimps soaring over the city—Dish Network, MetLife, and yes, the Conan craft. I wondered what a zeppelin the size of the Hindenburg would have looked like flying over Baltimore. I wondered if it might have looked this:
The Hindenburg explosion killed 35 of the 97 people on board and one person on the ground. A cause of the disaster has been widely speculated about and has created more conspiracy theories than the Kennedy assination, yet the true cause of the Hindenburg's demise has never been discovered.