When I was a kid in England, there was a telephone service called the “speaking clock” (some called it the “talking clock”). In the same way that there’s a short number to call emergency services (999 in England; 911 in the United States), there was a short number to access the speaking clock.

When you dialed the appropriate number (I can no longer recall what it was), every ten seconds you would hear a recorded human voice saying something like, “At the third stroke, the time will be twelve forty-six and ten seconds…,” followed by three beeps. The adults regularly used this service to determine the current time in order to set their pocket watches, wristwatches, and household clocks.

As an aside, the first telephone speaking clock service was introduced in France, in association with the Paris Observatory, on 14 February 1933. Also, early services used live operators to announce the current time (now, there’s a job that would get boring after the first 10 years or so). It was sometime later that the live operators were replaced by the machines we called the speaking clocks.

All of this may seem a little quaint to younger readers who have never known a world without things like smartphones and the internet. These days, all of our devices — computers, televisions, digital recorders, etc. — automatically reflect the current time and constantly synchronize themselves via wired or wireless connections. By comparison, in the halcyon days of my youth, most clocks were powered by clockwork mechanisms, which tended to lose or gain a few seconds a day. Even electronic devices tended to drift over time as a function of environmental conditions or — in my case — being taken to bits and reassembled in novel ways.

When VHS-based VCRs (video cassette recorders; don’t ask) appeared on the scene in the late 1970s, a popular party game was to try to set the time on theses devices. Without their knowing the current time, you couldn’t instruct them to record a program at some future time. If the truth be told, however, even if you were one of the lucky few who managed to fight their way through the baffling instruction manual and managed to set the time, your chances of actually recording a specific program at a specific time on a specific day were slight. I’m not sure if this was because the manuals were so badly written, the users were so unfamiliar with the technology, or the user interfaces were designed by $%#$%^ (people with an unusual sense of humor) — possibly a combination of all these factors.

But we digress… The point is that, in an uncertain world, one of the few things you could rely on was the speaking clock, with its calm, measured assertion that, “At the third stroke, the time will be twelve forty-six and twenty seconds…” beep, beep, beep.

The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that someone just pointed me at this The Speaking Clock Goes Silent column on Hackaday. In turn, this pointed me at this Time’s Up for the Iconic Talking Clock article on the Australian Geographic website. Along the way, I ran into this video on YouTube.


It seems that, at the third stroke of midnight on 30 September 2019, Australia’s talking clock fell silent. I understand that old technologies fall by the wayside for want of use (although nearly two million people called the talking clock in Australia throughout 2018). I also never got the chance to hear its dulcet tones myself, but still I’m sad that the speaking clock speaks no more. Now I long to hear it one last time, “At the third stroke, the time will be twelve forty-six and thirty seconds…” beep, beep, beep.

What say you? Will you miss the speaking clock, or do you not care that it is no longer with us?