Geek Trivia: What advertising mishap forced the U.S. military to begin 'tracking' Santa Claus in 1955?

What mishandled advertising campaign led to NORAD providing flight-tracking data on Santa Claus for the last 50 years?

Most geeks have at least a passing familiarity with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD -- and not just because it's the nerve center of air defense operations for the continental United States and Canada. NORAD's telegenic Cheyenne Mountain underground complex was the setting for both the seminal hacker flick WarGames and for Stargate Command in the various incarnations of the eponymous sci-fi TV franchise.

It's thus amusing to think that, in some parallel fictional universe, either General Jack O'Neill or the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer are busily preparing for one of NORAD's lesser known real-world duties: tracking the flight path Santa Claus. That's right, Jolly Old St. Nick has been one of the various bogeys on NORAD's radar since well before there was even a NORAD.

NORAD's predecessor, the Colorado Springs Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), actually began publicly tracking the flight path of Father Christmas in 1955, three years before NORAD was formed. The tradition was handed off to NORAD in 1958, and continues even to this day, with a website, Flickr album, YouTube channel, wiki guide, Twitter stream, and Facebook page all dedicated to disseminating NORAD's tracking data on Kris Kringle and his hypersonic flying sleigh.

Of course, the U.S. military never planned on being a public resource for Santa-centric geolocation. Uncle Sam was unexpectedly roped into the gig by an erroneous holiday promotion.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...