NORAD: tracking Santa for 59 years
The unusual tradition of NORAD - usually tasked with defending US airspace - hosting a website to track Santa Claus can be dated back to a happy accident in 1955
For most of the year NORAD is tasked with defending airspace around the US and Canada from missiles and incursions by foreign air forces, but each December it also pours a huge amount of resources into entertaining children around the world by tracking Santa Claus as he delivers presents.
The unusual tradition dates back to 1955, when a Sears department store offered children the chance to talk directly to Santa in an advert. It said: “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct and be sure and dial the correct number.”
Unfortunately, they hadn't demonstrated the same attention to detail that they were demanding of children and had accidentally printed the phone number for the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead of their own office. Instead of getting through to an actor, ready with a gruff laugh and some scripted patter, they ended up on the line to a military base. Once he realised what had happened, Colonel Harry Shoup - who came to be known as the “Santa Colonel” - quickly told his staff to answer the calls with an update on Santa's current position.
NORAD replaced CONAD a few years later, but the tradition remained and continues to this day.
Volunteers staff call centres on Christmas Eve and field around 70,000 phone calls each year from 200 countries. Last year the first lady, Michelle Obama, lent a hand and spoke to children from around a dozen families.
The whole programme is run by volunteers from within NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), but also from Google, Verizon and Air Canada, and funded through corporate sponsorship, so that there is no cost to the US taxpayer.
Speaking to NBC, then deputy commander of NORAD Lt. Gen. Marcel Duval, said in 2010: "It's really ingrained in the NORAD psyche and culture. It's a goodwill gesture from all of us, on our time off, to all the kids on the planet."
In 1997 the internet was brought into play and each year since, NORAD has hosted a different website tracking Santa’s progress. Through the years they’ve become more and more advanced, upgrading along with the internet itself.
The project has now embraced all forms of online communication: it has Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook accounts.
From 2004 to 2009 people were able to track Santa through Google Earth, with the site offering a download link for the application and a .kml file.
NORAD has now switched allegiance and will use Bing Maps, as this year’s site has been developed in partnership with Microsoft's Internet Explorer team. The company has optimised the site for touchscreen devices and is using 3D technology with WebGL to provide a "more realistic-looking version of Santa’s Village and Santa’s trek across the world".
On December 24 when NORAD starts tracking Santa, visitors to the site will be able to follow his journey on the 3D globe and pinch and zoom their way to his many destinations.
Traditionally, Santa starts his journey around the world at the Republic of Kiribati, a collection of 32 atolls with a total population of 100,000 scattered in 1.3m square miles of the Pacific Ocean across the International Date Line.