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

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.)


Presented by

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Technology

Just In