The origin of NORAD's Santa Tracker: A typo, a red phone, a friendly colonel

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The origin of NORAD's Santa Tracker: A typo, a red phone, a friendly colonel
It’s that time again — Santa spends all year watching little boys and girls but for one night the tables are turned, thanks to NORAD Santa Tracker.
This image provided by NASA shows the original 1955 advertisement that started the tradition of the North American Aerospace Defense Command tracking Santa. NORAD's holiday tradition can by traced to 1955, when a Colorado Springs newspaper printed a Sears Roebuck ad telling children of a phone number to talk to Santa. The number for the "Santa hot line" was one digit off, and instead the first child to get through got the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor. (AP Photo/NASA)
FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2010 file image provided by noradsanta.org, the official NORAD tracking of Santa Claus is shown on a satellite map of the world. NORAD Tracks Santa, the official name of the exercise, began in 1955 when a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited kids to talk to Santa on a hotline. The phone number had a typo, and dozens of kids wound up dialing the Continental Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, the predecessor to NORAD. Volunteer Santa-trackers at NORAD are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails on Christmas Eve this year. (AP Photo/NORAD, via noradsanta.org)
FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2012 file photo, NORAD Deputy Commander Lt. General Alain Parent, center, of the Royal Canadian Air Force, takes phone calls from children asking where Santa is and when he will deliver presents to their house, during the annual NORAD Tracks Santa Operation, at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Also fielding calls are U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, left, and U.S. Air Force Maj. Chris Bendig. The U.S. and Canadian military will entertain millions of kids again this Christmas Eve with second-by-second updates on Santa’s global whereabouts.(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2012 file photo, volunteer Katherine Beaupre takes phone calls from children asking where Santa is and when he will deliver presents to their house,during the annual NORAD Tracks Santa Operation, at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The U.S. and Canadian military will entertain millions of kids again this Christmas Eve with second-by-second updates on Santa’s global whereabouts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2012 file photo, Lizzie Solano, center, and her sister Sarah take phone calls from children asking where Santa is and when he will deliver presents to their house, during the annual NORAD Tracks Santa Operation, at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The U.S. and Canadian military will entertain millions of kids again this Christmas Eve with second-by-second updates on Santa’s global whereabouts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 file photo, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Scobie, right, his son Andrew, center, and wife Janis, all take phone calls from children asking where Santa is and when he will deliver presents to their house, during the annual NORAD Tracks Santa Operation, at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. NORAD said Friday, Dec. 28, it drew a record number of phone calls and social media followers during its NORAD Tracks Santa operation on Christmas Eve. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
Volunteers take phone calls and answer emails at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Lots of military secrets are hidden behind the gleaming walls of NORAD'S headquarters building, including this one: Just how do they get Santa's flight path onto their computer screens every Christmas Eve? Tracking Santa's travels is a celebrated tradition at the North American Aerospace Command, and it unfolds Friday for the 55th year. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2010 file photo, Air Force Lt. Col. David Hanson, of Chicago, takes a phone call from a child in Florida at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo. Santa is already piling up monster numbers on social networking sites this season, so the volunteer Santa-trackers at NORAD are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails when their operations center goes live on Christmas Eve. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Scobie talks with a fellow volunteer while taking phone calls from children asking where Santa is and when he will deliver presents to their house, during the annual NORAD Tracks Santa Operation, at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo., Monday Dec. 24, 2012. Over a thousand volunteers at NORAD handle more than 100,000 thousand phone calls from children around the world every Christmas Eve, with NORAD continually projecting Santa's supposed progress delivering presents. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Volunteer Kim Watson talks with a youngster asking about Santa's whereabouts at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Lots of military secrets are hidden behind the gleaming walls of NORAD'S headquarters building, including this one: Just how do they get Santa's flight path onto their computer screens every Christmas Eve. Tracking Santa's travels is a celebrated tradition at the North American Aerospace Command, and it unfolds Friday for the 55th year. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Volunteer Ken Peck listens to question from a youngster about Santa at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Lots of military secrets are hidden behind the gleaming walls of NORAD'S headquarters building, including this one: Just how do they get Santa's flight path onto their computer screens every Christmas Eve? Tracking Santa's travels is a celebrated tradition at the North American Aerospace Command, and it unfolds Friday for the 55th year. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Air Force Lt. Col. David Hanson, of Chicago, takes a phone call from a youngster in Florida at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Volunteers take as many as 80,000 phone calls from youngsters and adults around the world with questions about Santa and his travels. Lots of military secrets are hidden behind the gleaming walls of NORAD'S headquarters building, including this one: Just how do they get Santa's flight path onto their computer screens every Christmas Eve?Tracking Santa's travels is a celebrated tradition at the North American Aerospace Command, and it unfolds Friday for the 55th year. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2010 file photo, volunteers take phone calls and answer emails at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo. Santa is already piling up monster numbers on social networking sites this season, so the volunteer Santa-trackers at NORAD are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails when their operations center goes live on Christmas Eve. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
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It's almost time for Santa to begin his journey around the world, and that means the volunteers over at NORAD are gearing up to keep tabs on St. Nick with their annual Santa Tracker.

These days the young (and the young at heart) can hop online to follow Santa's progress across the globe, but the tradition started almost 60 years ago with a typo and a phone call.

In 1955 Sears published an ad in a Colorado newspaper encouraging kids to call Santa, but accidentally printed a wrong number. That number didn't reach Sears, or the North Pole, but instead rang up a secret military hotline -- often known as a "red phone" -- manned by U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup.

Shoup's kids recently joined StoryCorps to tell their memories of the fateful call.

"Only a four star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number," daughter Terri Van Keuren recalled.

"This was the '50s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States," son Richard Shoup said.

Initially, the colonel thought it was all a Christmas prank, but when he realized the "little voice" on the other end of the line was a kid really looking for Santa, he quickly changed his tune, daughter Pamela Farrell says.

"So he talked to him, 'ho ho ho'ed and asked if he had been a good boy," she explained. Shoup then asked for the little boy to put his mom on the phone who quickly explained the situation and the misprinted advertisement.

"Dad looked [the ad] up, and there it was, his red-phone number," she continued. "And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus."

His children all remember the red phone's new purpose quickly became a big joke in the Colorado Springs office where their father worked. The "Christmas Eve of 1955, when dad walked in, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole."

By 1998 NORAD shifted its tracking options online, developing its Internet-version of the Santa Tracker and more recently unveiling a mobile app.

All that tracking takes a lot of work even before Santa's flight begins, with workers monitoring weather reports prior to takeoff and even compiling a "threat assessment" as different flight paths for his journey are considered.

Last year 1,200 volunteers answered almost 120,000 calls and the program logged more than 19 million unique visitors to its website.

And while there are more than a thousand volunteers to thank, ultimately a Sears typo and Col. Shoup get most of the credit.

"He was an important guy, but this is the thing he's known for," Van Keuren said of her dad's Christmas legacy.

Richard Shoup agreed: "It's probably the thing he was proudest of too."


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