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The Speaking Clock Speaks No More

I understand that old technologies fall by the wayside for want of use, but still I’m sad that the speaking clock speaks no more.

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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?

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Charles Pfeil

I estimate the time between the third stroke and the next notification would be about 2 seconds. That would drive me crazy, or as my son would say, “Crazier”. Also, at the time these clocks were common, what were they synchronized with? I doubt they were synced with an atomic clock which became available in 2004.

Rick Curl

In the U. S I would think the clocks were synchronized with WWV, the radio station operated by the National Bureau of Standards. Even though they were not atomic clocks back then, they did have some very accurate timekeeping devices.

PeterTraneus Anderson

1 (303)499-7111 to listen to WWV time announcement once each minute.

Rick Curl

What a coincidence that you would bring this up. Just yesterday I was telling one of my younger coworkers about the telephone company’s talking clock. It was always sponsored by a local business. I remember my dad would call it every Sunday morning to set all of the clocks and watches in the house.

“Today is Sunday. Attend the church of your choice. Birmingham Trust National Bank time at the tone will be eight fifty-five A.M. and ten seconds”…….BEEP.

Chewy

I did check and our Time and Temp is still listed in the paper phone book that was delivered last week. But alas when I try calling it all I get is a busy signal. This may be due to a failure or that just so many people are calling to see if it still works after reading this blog!!!!!! It used to be the way that everyone would reset their clocks after a power failure. Guess at this point it is back to the sun dial

Aubrey Kagan

Something in this article reminded me of hearing BBC time checks on the hour, just before the news. In turn that reminded me of the Canadian time check just before the 1 PM news, with its unique (at least I have not heard it anywhere else) of syncing the time. There is a verbal description as to when the sinchronisation happens. Here is Wikipedia’s description of what actually happens:

“The signal consists of a series of 300 ms “pips” of an 800 Hz sine wave tone, each one starting at the top of each UTC second, up to ten seconds before the hour, followed by silence, and then a one second-long 800 Hz tone to mark the top of the hour”. It still happens every day.
You can find Wikipedia’s description here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Research_Council_Time_Signal

BUT as I read further I found that Canada still has the talking clock, in the dulcet Canadian tones of a well known (not to me) radio announcer.
The number for Eastern time in English is +1 (613) 745-1576

Aubrey Kagan

It’s Canadian. It’s bound to be boring…

Aubrey Kagan

1 (613) 745-9426 for French service

Aubrey Kagan

Reminds me, back in South Africa, just before the 1PM news the announcer would read off the ruling prices for fruit and vegetables at the Johannesburg market for that day. Boring would be an understatement.

One day an announcer decided that since no one cared or listened anyway, he would read it with expression, getting really excited over different prices. Obviously I can’t give you an audio idea, but it was really funny. It lasted about a week and then he got fired.

Aubrey Kagan

“plumb job somewhere”
Although I think you meant “plum”- that HAD to be an intentional pun!

Aubrey Kagan

And the thought of the BBC News got me searching. To me this music was the BBC. I have no idea why they got rid of it.

https://www.daily-news-media.com/bbc-news-radio-opening-theme/

PeterTraneus Anderson

WWV audio can be heard at 1-303-499-7111.

David Ashton

I look after phone systems for my employer in Australia and in the numerous upgrades we have done, one of our standard tests was to call the speaking clock. The last one we did – a couple of weeks ago – that test was not there, but as we’ve changed form ISDN to SIP trunks I thought it was something to do with that. But maybe it was ‘cos it just ain’t there any more. I guess anyone who needs the time these days will just look at their smartphone anyway – I think that time is synced to GPS time now?

David Ashton

The ways of the world are indeed strange….
Once when I was in Zimbabwe, working in airline telecomms, I was trying to phone a lady at the KLM office. It was constantly engaged, so I sent a message for her to phone me from my computer terminal, which was connected to a computer in Atlanta in the US. The message then went out on our network, via our parent centre London, and got delivered on a teleprinter in her office. She rang me back straight away….

Ian Johns

I remember at university in the late 60’s there was an experimental setup where an analogue computer in one building controlled a steam boiler in another building. The results were recorded on a multi channel tape recorder. One channel was hooked up to the phone system to record the talking clock.

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