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

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.)


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/what-it-was-like-to-be-a-telephone-operator-on-the-night-orson-welles-broadcast-war-of-the-worlds/264051/