Telephone Operators and the “War of the Worlds” Radio Drama

Martians destroying a town in England in a 1906 edition of “War of the Worlds”.  On that infamous day in 1938, scenes like this were going through the heads of many frightened Americans as Orson Welles’s radio drama was broadcast. (Henrique Alvim Correa/Wikimedia Commons)

While most people sleep during the night, there is a legion of workers who work during the nighttime hours, making sure that the essential services that power our lives stay on during the night. Part of that legion are the telephone operators who make sure our telephone and Internet service stays on during the night and who stay on standby to provide customer assistance if needed.

During the 1930s, telephone operators were also an essential source of up to the minute information
in the days before “instant” mass media such as TV. If anyone needed instant information about the news or weather or just needed to get in touch with Aunt Sally, all they needed to do was dial 0 and the operator would be with them right away.

One of the greatest examples of operators fulfilling that task during this period of time was the night when Orson Welles’s radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s novel War of the Worlds aired in 1938 and caused a mass hysteria across the US. Throughout the night of the broadccast, telephone operators all across the United States were inundated with calls from terrified people trying to get in touch with family members or just checking to see if what they were hearing on the radio was real. Not only were the switchboards of major telephone companies such as AT&T overwhelmed, but the switchboards of local police and radio stations and telegraph offices as well. Operators worked through the night trying to reassure the public that the Martian invasion (as well as rumors that it was actually Germans and not Martians who were attacking and/or invading the USA) was not real and that they had no reason to worry.

In 1988, AT&T made a special video interviewing some of their operators who were on duty that night. In this six minute video they detail the sensation of that night, including how every single light on the half-block long AT&T switchboard lit up during the course of that broadcast, to the truly terrifying accounts of terrified people trying to place one last call through to their families to tell them they loved them before the Martians came.

Telephone operators are truly some of our society’s unsung heroes and some of our “knights of the night”. It’s my hope to be able to share more of their stories here over time.

Links: (Page at detailing reports of the public reaction to the radio drama, including some of the calls received by telephone operators on the night of its broadcast.)

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