What It Was Like to Be a Telephone Operator on the Night Orson Welles Broadcast 'War of the Worlds'

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When Martians attack, who you gonna call? Actually, just the operator.

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles (somewhat intentionally) created one of the great hoaxes in American history, broadcasting a too-real seeming Martian invasion of New Jersey. While you've undoubtedly heard this story, AT&T just posted a 1988 video of their telephone operators recalling (nostalgically!) the night they thought aliens had invaded. People, scared out of their minds, made the logical decision to pick up the phone to get more information, quickly overwhelming the telephone staff.

"Every light on that board lit. Now that board was, I would say, almost half a block long," one operator says. "Our board lit up when they announced that the martians were coming across the George Washington Bridge," another recalls. 

Lorene Fechner of Missoula, Montana delivered the most haunting recollection.

"People believed it. They really believed that night," Fechner says. "I think of the people who were begging us to get connections to their families, to their husbands, to mothers and fathers, before the world came to an end, so they could just tell them they loved them." 

Aside from the sheer weirdness of this perspective on the Welles-induced frenzy, the video also highlights an easy-to-forget fact about the telephone system at that time. Operators were, in themselves, important information nodes. These people didn't just want to be connected to friends and family; they wanted to know what the human operators themselves knew and thought. 

(If you want to skip the intro, it lasts 1:25.)


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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