How a technical error affected our interpretation of history

We often talk about the effects that the reporting of dramatic and important events from the past has had on how those events (and the people involved) are treated in history. The initial reports are accurate enough, but usually are then misunderstood, misinterpreted, or deliberately tweaked by later commentators. That’s how myths creep in. But what if our understanding of a historical event has been skewed by a mechanical problem or malfunction? Today we’re going to look at the ways in which our understanding of the 1937 Hindenburg explosion and crash have been influenced by technical problems in a sound recording.

Most know the Hindenburg story. While landing at Lakewood, New Jersey, at the end of its maiden trans-Atlantic voyage on May 6, 1937, the great hydrogen-filled airship, the pride of Nazi Germany, burst into flames.  The disaster was almost certainly the result of a discharge of atmospheric electricity near to the Hindenburg, igniting the hydrogen inside the zeppelin, causing a massive, fiery explosion, and killing 36 people.

And most of us also know the story from the reporting of Herbert Morrison, a well-known and respected radio announcer in the 1930s. Along with sound engineer Charlie Nehlsen, Morrison had been sent by Chicago’s WLS radio station to report on the Hindenburg’s landing. This was not a live broadcast, Buzzkillers, but was recorded on wax discs to be played later over the radio. Many of you, no doubt, have seen newsreel clips of the Hindenburg exploding and crashing, with Morrison’s voice describing the disaster. This gives the impression of a “live” broadcast of sound and pictures, but Morrison’s recording was added to the newsreel much later.

Here’s what you usually hear as Morrison describes the attempted landing and the eventual explosion:

The shock and emotion in Morrison’s voice comes through so clearly in this recording. It goes right through you. That effect is no doubt enhanced, however, by the high-pitched nature of Morrison’s voice. He seems to have a high-pitched voice to begin with, and the shock and panic he feels at the time of the explosion seems to send his voice a little higher (as it would with anyone). In fact, all my life I’ve heard people refer to Morrison’s frantic, high-pitched voice when talking about the Hindenburg, and especially when it sounds that he’s crying when saying his now-famous line, “Oh, the humanity.”

The problem, Buzzkillers, is that Morrison and Nehlsen’s recording machine was running a little bit slowly that day. Experts such as Dr. Michael Biel, a communications professor and historian of audio recording technology, have determined that the machine may have been running 3-5% more slowly than normal when they were reporting the Hindenburg landing. When played back on a machine running at normal speed, like the one at WLS, their home radio station, Morrison’s reporting was, in effect, speeded up and the pitch of his voice was raised artificially.

This higher voice is more dramatic and sounds more panic-stricken than Morrison’s normal voice, which was recognized during his career as moderately pitched and calming.

Here’s what Morrison’s report sounds like, played at the correct speed.

This was Morrison’s normal pitch and tone of voice. Now, granted, Buzzkillers, he was obviously shocked and distressed at what he was seeing, and his voice does go up slightly in pitch when he starts to describe the explosion. But would Morrison’s recording have become so iconic if the speed problem had been corrected and we heard his normal voice? Would the testimony Morrison provided in his commentary be so chilling if it hadn’t come across to us through the generations so high-pitched and panicky? I doubt it.

Morrison’s recording would still have been used, of course, and we would probably still know it today because, even at the correct speed, it is an excellent and gripping first-hand account of this disaster. Perhaps the pitch mistake is an overly technical and nitpicking point, but it provides us with an excellent example of how history, and the emotions that tragic history can bring up, can be partly based on mistakes in how the original reporting comes down to us.

A final thought: maybe the most amazing thing about the Hindenburg story is that 62 of the 97 passengers survived. How that happened in that inferno, I’ll never know.

 

Sources:

This is a transcription of the recording:

The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from — It burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie! Get this, Charlie! It’s fire—and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my, get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames, and the—and it’s falling on the mooring-mast and all the folks agree that this is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.

[Indecipherable word(s)] It’s–it’s–it’s the flames, [indecipherable, possibly the word “climbing”] oh, four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it … it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’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. I told you, I can’t even talk to people whose friends are on there. Ah! It’s–it’s–it’s–it’s … o–ohhh! I–I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk, and the screaming. Lady, I–I’m sorry. Honest: I–I can hardly breathe. I–I’m going to step inside where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah—I can’t. I, listen, folks, I–I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.

 

Here is the full-length recording that Morrison made (note, when played back, it is at the incorrect, accelerated speed we’ve talked about).

This is one of Professor Biel’s in-depth analyses of the Hindenburg recordings, and the ways in which they were reported by National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Among other things, it provides an excellent technical analysis of the recordings, and well as the detailed history of what happened to the recordings after the event. Further, there are excellent contributions to the discussion by other experts.