Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster. The iconic German airship, filled with volatile hydrogen, exploded in flames while mooring at Lakehurst, New Jersey on the evening of May 6, 1937. Thirty-six people died.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the news report that brought that tragedy so vividly into homes and workplaces across the country the following day. Many of us who’ve listened to Herb Morrison choking back sobs as he describes the unfolding horror may have assumed it was originally a live broadcast. Not so. (All Things Considered made the same mistake on its 60th anniversary report in 1997.)
Herb and engineer Charlie Nehlsen were sent by WLS in Chicago on a promotional junket for American Airlines to capture the event for later broadcast. In those pre-magnetic tape days the recorder used 16-inch transcription disks, actually cutting grooves into the wax surface. It had to be absolutely level and isolated from any vibrations. In fact the explosion caused the cutter head to jump out of the groove and Nehlsen quickly had to reset it. All in all a remarkable intersection of technology and history.
Herb and Charlie flew back to Chicago with the disks and got their amazing audio on the air locally that night or next morning (accounts vary). Because WLS was an NBC affiliate, portions of the recording were heard on the Blue network the next day — despite the industry’s ban on using recorded material in any news broadcast.
There’s much more information from research done by Dr. Michael Biel of Morehead State University … including the interesting conclusion that the recording we’re used to was actually a bit fast! Dr. Biel says Herb Morrison had a deep, “smooth and easy” voice. You can read all about it here.
And here’s the audio, courtesy of the National Archives: