Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Herbert Morrison (announcer)
Herbert Morrison (May 14, 1905 – January 10, 1989), American radio reporter, was best known for his vivid description of the explosion and fire that destroyed the Hindenburg zeppelin. Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been assigned by station WLS in Chicago to cover the arrival of the airship in New Jersey as an experiment in recording news for delayed broadcast.
Network policy in those days forbade the use of recorded material except for sound effects on dramas, and Morrison and Nehlsen had no facilities for live broadcast. Still the results became the prototype for news broadcasting in the war years to follow. The fame of this recording had no effect on network policies, however, and it was not until after the end of World War II that recordings were regularly used.
Morrison's description began routinely but changed instantly as the airship burst into flames:
- It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and it has been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it, just enough to keep it from…
- It burst into flames! …It's fire and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! [sic] Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning, bursting into flames and is falling on the mooring mast, and all the folks agree that this is terrible. This is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world! …There's smoke, and there's flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast…Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here!
Morrison and Nehlsen continued their work, reporting at length on the rescue efforts and interviewing survivors, with several pauses while Morrison composes himself. The disk recordings were rushed back to Chicago and broadcast in full later that night. Portions were rebroadcast nationally by the NBC network the next day. It was the first time recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, but also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Morrison's quick professional response and accurate description combined with his own emotional reaction have made the recordings a classic of audio history.
The emotional feeling may be intensified by the fact that Nehlsen's recorder ran a bit slow and all subsequent playbacks have been slightly speeded up.
Audio historian Michael Biel of Morehead State University studied the original recordings and documented Nehlsen's vital contribution as an engineer as well as the playback speed issue:
- I have closely examined the original discs and photographed the grooves at the point of the explosion. You can see several deep digs in the lacquer before the groove disappears. Then almost immediately there is a faint groove for about two revolutions while Charlie Nehlsen gently lowered the cutting head back to the disc. Fortunately the cutting stylus never cut through the lacquer to the aluminum base. If that had happened the most dramatic part of the recording would not have been made because the stylus would have been ruined. The digs and the bouncing off of the cutting head were caused by the shock wave of the explosion which reached the machine just after Morrison said "It burst into flame…"
- I and several others believe that the originals were recorded slightly slow, and that all replays have been at too fast a speed. Comparison with the now two other known contemporary recordings of Morrison demonstrate this conclusion.
Morrison's description has been dubbed onto the newsreel film of the crash, giving the impression of a modern television-style broadcast, but at the time newsreels were separately narrated in a studio and Morrison's words were not heard in theaters.
The availability of newsreel films, photographs and Morrison's description was a result of heavy promotion of the arrival by the Zeppelin company, ironically making the crash a media event and raising its importance far beyond other disasters, less well reported and documented.
Morrison's usual broadcast work was as an announcer on live musical programs, but his earlier successful reporting of midwestern floods from an airplane led to his assignment at Lakehurst that day.
- "Oh, the humanity!"
- Real Audio playback of Morrison's report from the Radio Days web site
- Historian Michael Biel and others in an exhaustive discussion of the broadcast and recordings from the old.time.radio mailing list.
- Alternate playback from the Voices of the Twentieth Century web site
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