Do you talk to your alarm clock? I do. I was recently in a hotel room, woke up in the middle of the night and said, “Computer. What time is it?” Since my Amazon Echo (which responds to the name Computer) was at home, I was greeted with silence. Isn’t the future great?
Of course, there have been a variety of talking clocks over the years. You used to be able to call a phone number and a voice would tell you the time. But how old do you think the talking clock really is? Would you guess that this year is the 140th anniversary of the world’s first talking clock? In fact, it doesn’t just hold the talking clock record. The experimental talking clock Frank Lambert made is also the oldest surviving recording that can be still be played back on its original device.
In 1878, the phonograph had just been invented and scratched out sounds on a piece of tin foil. Lambert realized this wouldn’t hold up to multiple playbacks and set out to find a more robust recording medium. What he ended up building was a clock that would announce the time using lead to record the speech instead of tin foil.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The speech is pretty hard to understand as you might expect. There is a page that does a great analysis of the recordings by David Winter. As audio processing gets better, it is possible you could pull more intelligence out of the recording, but parts of it are pretty clear, as you can hear (or not hear, as the case may be) in the video below.
Interestingly — according to that analysis — some of the recordings are things like “Five o’clock time to work” and “Come on man! Get up! Get up!” This meshes neatly with a quote from Edison in a newspaper from the same year that a clock company had a phonograph that would announce the lunch hour. Edison speculated that you could construct an alarm clock with a phonograph that said “Halloo, there! Five o’clock! What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you get up?” You have to wonder if Lambert had read that same article.
What is the Oldest Recording?
If you think this is the oldest recording, you’d be sort of wrong. In all fairness, though, while that is older, it wasn’t meant to be a recording. But modern technology can pull the voice out of it just the same. There have been rumors of Lincoln’s voice and a few other old recordings that don’t really exist. That link also has the story of a macabre recording attempt using ears from cadavers. Turns out the oldest recording of a president was from Benjamin Harrison.
One thing to remember is that these old recordings didn’t benefit from electronic amplification. So the speaker had to yell into the horn to get the needle to cut into the recording medium. I’d imagine you’d sound a little different doing that then you would in ordinary conversation. Of course, shouting too loud would cause distortion, so there was a definite art involved.
All of this makes us think of Arthur Sullivan’s response in 1888 when his song “The Lost Chord” was recorded. He reportedly said, “I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be on record forever.”
Clocks to Jukeboxes
It is hard to realize that back in the late 1800s it wasn’t clear what good a phonograph was. Edison famously envisioned the device as an electronic note taker or something like a dictaphone. He didn’t imagine it creating a worldwide market for prerecorded music. He probably didn’t dream of the phonograph parlors where patrons paid a nickel to listen to specific recordings, either. Even as late as 1906, the public had to be advised of what the machine could do and that included recording, learning languages, theater, and music, too.
Turns out a French poet, Charles Cros, had the idea about the same time as Edison but didn’t develop it. His design looked more like the familiar gramophone and less like the Edison device. Since he was a poet, we wonder if he had a better idea of how it would be used. Of course, he was also convinced there were cities on Mars and wanted the French government to build a giant mirror to burn lines in the Martian sand as a way to communicate with the inhabitants.
It really isn’t unusual for new technology to make false starts in function. Home computers, at one time, were envisioned for balancing your checkbook and storing recipes. A talking clock isn’t that farfetched if you have a solution in search for a problem.
Of course, a talking clock now is no big deal. My Google Home and my Amazon Echo will do it and even act like alarm clocks. You can’t even call to hear the time on your phone anymore. Then again, it is more fun to roll your own anyway. Even an Arduino can do it with a little help.