1938 Fifty Years Ago

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Weather forecasts called for merely “overcast with rain,” but on September 21 a hurricane tore across Long Island, drowned Providence, Rhode Island, with a ten-foot tidal wave, and lashed Cape Cod with 150-mile-per-hour winds. In its wake the storm left sixty thousand families homeless, damage totaling half a billion dollars, more than six hundred dead and missing, and for the survivors, haunting, indelible memories of the Hurricane of 1938.

Robert Sherwood’s play Abe Lincoln in Illinois opened in New York on October 17 with a memorable performance by Raymond Massey in the title role. The drama chronicled the three decades preceding Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, including his ill-fated romance with Ann Rutledge and his hesitant marriage to the volatile Mary Todd. “Mr. Sherwood has looked down with compassion into the lonely blackness of Lincoln’s heart,” wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times , “and seen some of the fateful things that lived there.”

After several years of dogged experimentation, Chester Carlson of New York produced the first xerographic copy at his laboratory in Astoria, Queens, on October 22. The ordinary-looking piece of waxed paper simply read, "10-22-38 Astoria,” but it represented a technological breakthrough that would at last satisfy the reproducutive urges of office workers everywhere.

Existing methods of reproducing documents, such as mimeography, were cumbersome, expensive, and often messy. Carlson’s ingenious but involved process, which he called electrophotography, attracted little attention at first. Then, in 1945, the Haloid Company of Rochester, New York, became interested in electrophotography. The company funded research into making the process commercially viable and in 1949 introduced a new product, and a new word, with the XeroX Model A.

On the evening of October 30, invaders from the planet Mars landed in New Jersey. At least that’s what thousands of terrified radio listeners thought when they tuned in late to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater of the Air adaptation of The War of the Worlds .

The twenty-three-year-old Welles updated H. G. Wells’s turn-of-the-century novel of aggressive extraterrestrial colonialism by presenting the dramatization as a sequence of news bulletins describing the death-ray-wielding Martians’ attack on rural New Jersey. So convincing were the bulletins that thousands believed that interplanetary war really was at hand.

Despite a series of disclaimers by CBS announcing the fictional nature of the broadcast, many families fled their homes to seek refuge from the Martians. The “invasion” left in its wake two hundred thousand dollars in lawsuits filed against CBS and Welles for broken bones, miscarriages, and other injuries suffered during the furor.