Vintage Radio
11:21 am
Thu August 14, 2014

Breaking News, 1937: Hindenburg burns

German airship Hindenburg burning at Lakehurst Naval Station, NJ, May 6, 1937
Credit Library of Congress, collection contributed by Murray Becker

The Hindenburg disaster was not the first time that radio influenced the way or the speed by which news was delivered to the masses, nor was it the first major event  to be given live coverage. To look at radio’s influence on news delivery of breaking events, we need to go back to the Titanic disaster.  Although the Titanic’s  plea for help was monitored only by other ships, a small handful of commercial shore stations, and perhaps a few early amateur operators, it did mark a turning point in media communications. Newspapers featured the story on their front pages and in special editions the following morning. Were it not for wireless communications, the story probably would not have reached the newspapers for several days. Other events marked the coverage of news live as it happened. KDKA, the nation’s first licensed broadcaster, went on the air with the coverage of the Harding/ Cox presidential election in 1920.

The Hindenburg disaster  is attributed as being the first time that something of this nature and magnitude  occurred live and unplanned while a radio reporter was on the scene. Contrary to popular belief, (including that of NPR) (*1) it was not aired live but rather recorded for later airplay. The fact that it was recorded at all is a tribute to the beginnings of radio journalism and the "feature story". It is interesting to note that story was not being covered by a local New Jersey radio station, but rather by WLS from Chicago. There were probably a few reasons for this. First, it was not the giant zeppelin’s maiden voyage. The ship had already made ten successful crossings to the United States and seven more to Brazil. For the residents of Lakehurst, NJ, it may have been an awesome sight to watch, but it was no longer news. The  giant airship was carrying thirty six passengers, about half its capacity, and a crew of sixty one, which included  twenty one  trainees.  (*1)

Thirty-one year old WLS reporter Herbert Morrison liked to do feature stories and thought that coverage of the zeppelin’s arrival would be of interest to WLS listeners, so he convinced the station’s management to send him and recording engineer Charles Nehlsen to New Jersey. Despite the political propaganda associated with the Hindenburg (it was the pride of Hitler’s growing regime) the giant airship represented a new and modern way to travel. It offered luxury accommodations and a two day passage from Europe to the United States. Its designers envisioned even longer voyages and so equipped it with a large enough fuel capacity to allow an 11,000 mile range on a single fueling. The ship was designed to use non flammable helium as a lifting gas, however, because of strained relations between the United States (at the time the only large scale producer of helium) and Germany,  the Germans were forced to fill it with highly flammable hydrogen. I won’t dwell on any of the theories as to the cause of the disaster, which range from lightning to sabotage, as that would be beyond the scope of this article.

A presto disc recorder
Credit Unknown origin, P.Litwinovich collection

A 1930s broadcast recording vehicle
Credit Library of Congress, American Folklife Center - Lomax Glass Slide Collection

On May 6, 1937 Mr. Morrison and his engineer were on location in Lakehurst to report on the routine arrival of the Hindenburg. His engineer had set up a Presto Recorder. The Presto was a disc recorder that actually cut groves into a wax disc resembling a phonograph record. (*2) Magnetic tape (also a product of Hitler’s Germany) had not yet been invented. The airship’s arrival was delayed nearly ten hours by strong head winds over the Atlantic and then by foul weather at the landing site. By 7:25 PM local time, the wind and rain had died down enough to allow the ship to approach the mooring mast. Mooring lines were dropped to ground crews. Reporter Morrison began recording a live description of the event.  His plan was to interview passengers and crew after the landing. Then disaster struck. As the reporter was describing the mooring of the vessel, a small fire appeared to start near the rear upper portion of the air ship. The fire burned through to a hydrogen cell, resulting in an explosion. The shockwave from the explosion bounced the recording stylus off of the wax record resulting in a few seconds of missing audio before engineer Nehlson was able to reposition it. (*1a) This occurs just before you hear Mr. Morrison yell "it burst into flames." The reporter’s emotion and shock, clearly conveyed by the recording, brought a new level of reality into the homes of the listeners.

Mr. Morrison returned to Chicago the next day where the station aired the unedited recording in its entirety. Shortly after, major portions of it aired over NBC and other networks.


1937 Truetone model D-724 credit
Credit P. Litwinovich collection

Dial detail, Truetone model D-724
Credit P. Litwinovich collection

Domestic stories were not the only news driving people to radio at this time. Pictured here is a 1937 Truetone model D-724. Perhaps it brought the news of the Hindenburg disaster into someone’s home when it was new. It would have been be an attractive radio in the parlor of a late 1930s household. Most importantly, it could receive international short wave broadcasts or "overseas wireles" as it was often referred to. The radio reflects the growing popularity of short wave reception brought on by a few factors. First, America was a nation of immigrants, with many fresh from foreign lands or first generation, and short wave allowed them to stay in touch with their country and culture, often with broadcasts in their native language. Second, the radio listening public was eager for fresh and diversified programs much the same as we crave the combined choices that radio, cable, satellite, and the internet offers today. Third,  with growing political unrest in Europe and the far east, radio provided a "real time" way to stay in touch with what was transpiring. Governments were fast to discover the propaganda value of short wave radio as well. World War II would soon glue people to their radios.

Truetone chassis showing its more advanced vacuum tubes and compact design
Credit P. Litwinovich collection

The medium size wood cabinet table radio was a compact alternative to the large floor console while not sacrificing features or performance. Although Truetone was marketed to the average working class family, it was a quality design and a good performer. Hooked to an outdoor long wire antenna, the radio could receive just about anything that the listener wanted to hear. The set is a seven  tube Superheterodyne ( Note 1) receiver  with four knobs, volume, tone, band selection, and tuning. It could receive the broadcast band though 16 mHz which gave the listener most of the popular short wave bands plus frequencies used by marine, aircraft, amateur operators, and even the local police at the time. It featured the relatively new Automatic Volume Control (AVC) circuit to keep the loudspeaker volume constant even when the received signal faded in and out. The radio also came with the newly introduced "tuning eye" which appears in the  pictures as the green glow above the dial. It gave a visual indication of when the radio was properly tuned to a station as well as an indication of signal strength.  Shortwave reception was made possible by the heterodyne circuit and the advancement in tube technology, driven by what the circuit could do. Tube technology of the 1920s and early 1930s would have made it difficult and costly to design a radio that could handle the higher frequencies used by short wave broadcasts. In fact, in the early 1920s, frequencies above 1500 kHz were considered "worthless."

The Truetone radio company was located in Kansas City,  Missouri and was a division of the Western Auto Supply Company. (*4) The radios were sold exclusively through the Western Auto supply stores. Truetones were often known for their colorful dials that often included the call signs of popular AM band broadcasters and even some international short wave stations. While the company’s founder , George Pepperdine, at the time a 23 year old bookkeeper at a garage, did not contribute greatly to early radio technology, he did leave his mark on the radio industry. He  started selling auto parts in 1909 and added radios to the product line in 1926. He used Henry Ford’s assembly line concept to produce radios at a lower cost.

Collector's tip: Truetone radios were produced in large quantities. This and similar models are not too hard to find. When restored to working order they are a nice sounding, good performing radio for day to day use. Their colorful dials make them a favorite with collectors. I have seen restored model  D-724s bring over $700 at auction.

Next month I’ll take a look at how radio prepared for war, featuring the first in a long line of military grade receivers from The National Company, and a classic radio that flew on the B17 bomber.

Notes:

  1. Read about the development of the heterodyne receiver circuit in my articles "Radio for the Great Depression," parts 1 and 2

Reference:

(*1)  NPR while doing a feature on the Hindenburg also made this popular mistake. They received the correction posted at the following web site: http://jeff560.tripod.com/hindenburg.html  by Dr. Michael Biel of Morehead State University, who has done research on the Hindenburg disaster. Dr. Biel’s postings are an interesting read if you are interested in either Hindenburg or early broadcast journalism.

(*1a) In the same article, Dr Biel claims to have examined the original presto discs and confirmed from minor damage to the disc that the stylus was knocked out of place at this point in the recording.

(*2) Learn more about the Presto Disc Recorder: http://the78project.com/getting-to-know-the-presto-1-nightmares-in-recording-and-in-history/

(*3) Hindenburg history and statistics: http://www.airships.net/hindenburg/disaster , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindenburg_disaster, (also contains a copy of the news recording) and "We Interrupt This Broadcast" by Joe Garner, Publisher, SourceBooks, Inc.

(*4) http://www.westernautoradioland.com/ a great website about the history of Western Auto Supply,  Truetone radios, and owner George Pepperdine, who later founded Pepperdine University

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