Retrotechtacular: The Speaking Clock Goes Silent

It used to be that time was a lot more relative than it is today. With smartphones synced to GPS and network providers’ clocks, we all pretty much have access to an authoritative current time, giving few of us today the wiggle room to explain a tardy arrival at work to an impatient boss by saying our watch is running slow.

Even when that excuse was plausible, it was a bit weak, since almost every telephone system had some sort of time service. The correct time was but a phone call away, announced at first by live operators then later by machines called speaking clocks. Most of these services had been phased out long ago, but one, the speaking clock service in Australia, sounded for the last time at the end of September.

While the decommissioned machine was just another beige box living in a telco rack, the speaking clocks that preceded it were wonderfully complex electromechanical devices, and perfect fodder for a Retrotechtacular deep-dive. Here’s a look at the Australian speaking clock known as “George” and why speaking clocks were once the highest of technology.

Worst Job Ever

While we laugh – or cry – at stories today of the idiotic things people call emergency service numbers like 911 for, such behavior is far from new and at least somewhat understandable. People have always had a need for authoritative answers to simple questions, and one of the most common question fielded by operators in the early days of the telephone network was, “What time is it?” At first, the number of subscribers on any system was low enough that queries like that didn’t cause a problem, but network growth made it increasingly costly, since an operator telling someone the time wasn’t connecting a profitable call.

Telephone companies reacted to this by assigning one operator to time requests. Sitting at a special station, she – operators were invariably female – would read the time over and over on a special circuit, which people would connect to using a dedicated number. It had to be the most boring job in the world, so much so that operators rotated between regular duties and the time announcement station.

But as we see today, automation eventually threatens every job, and by the 1930s the technology for recording and playing back the human voice had progressed to the point where a “speaking clock” was feasible. The first speaking clock telephone service was installed in Paris in 1933, using optically recorded voice snippets that would form the core of most speaking clocks for the next 30 years.

Voice on Glass

While the French l’horloge parlante used glass cylinders, most speaking clocks would record the voice clips on three glass discs. The soundtracks were very similar to the optical soundtracks used in cinema at the time, and were read from the discs using photocell vacuum tubes, just like movie projectors. The discs rotated at a stately speed on a common shaft, driven by an electric motor that was synchronized to a time standard. AC mains frequency was nowhere near precise enough for this application, so external time standards ranging from precision pendulums to atomic clocks were used to control the motor speed.

In the Australian clock, each announcement was composed of phrases recorded separately and stored on different parts of the three optical discs. A series of cams and followers moved the photocells to the correct position on each disc to pick up the correct phrase, composing the message for the current time. Each announcement started with “At the third stroke, the time will be…” The mechanism then switched to a different disc to add the hour, then again to add the minute. Finally, the upcoming 10-second interval was called out, followed by three pips at one-second intervals. So the entire message might be, “At the third stroke, the time will be twelve twenty-three and 40 seconds; pip – pip – pip.” At the top of each minute, the word “precisely” was substituted for the seconds, projecting the appropriate air of confidence users were to have in the accuracy of the system.

With the Utmost Care

The video below shows the original 1954 installation of the first speaking clocks installed in Australia. The film is a classic bit of corporate showmanship and a time capsule of telephone operations in the Post War era. The two speaking clocks were a monstrous undertaking, being delivered by ship in 37 crates each and painstakingly installed in Melbourne and Sydney simultaneously. We’re told that every step was performed “under the supervision of Post Office engineers” – as in England at the time, telephone services were provided under the auspices of the post office.

The care that went into these devices was apparently well worth it; not only did the phone companies make a lot of money with them, but they also managed to stay in service for decades. The Australian electromechanical clocks remained on the job until 1966, at which time they were replaced with machines using magnetic recordings. Those remained in service until replaced with fully digital speaking clocks in 1990, which were the units that were retired only last month.

It’s a little sad but understandable to see devices like these, especially the mechanical ones, retired. There’s something remarkably satisfying about hearing those machines in action — not just the perfect diction of the carefully chosen speakers but the clicks and clacks of the mechanism as it goes through its motions. It’s a pity that the world doesn’t need such brilliant engineering anymore, but at least a few examples live on in museums today.

Thanks to [macsimski] for the tip.

28 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Speaking Clock Goes Silent

    1. It would be neat if there existed something like an automatic code linter but for words. It could highlight missing punctuation and even misspelled words or grammatical errors! It would probably be prohibitively expensive, or worse people would take them for granted and just turn them off.

      1. Worse yet it could make incorrect corrections and you might send something you didn’t mean without realizing it. Autocarrot would be really irritating because false positives are somehow more frustrating than false negatives and would convince people to shut it off pre-emptively. Better to not envision such a future.

  1. In the early 90s, my hometown had a phone info service, where you could call in to get not just the time, but all sorts of information, & even play games. (I think mainly quizes) Imagine a world where you can find all sorts of information, and even play games, using your phone…

    1. I think my hometown had the same thing, I used to get in trouble for calling it. I remember one of the games was some sort of “jungle adventure” that was something of a “Choose your own adventure” book just in audio format, would say something like “You have come to a fork in the river, to the left is a sign saying “danger: Crocodiles”, to the right is a sign warning of restless natives. There is a dock nearby” and then it’d tell you to dial 1 to go left, dial 2 to go right, or dial 3 to stop at the dock, or something like that.

      1. My sister managed to run up a bill that exceeded my father’s monthly salary on such a service. This was especially embarrassing as the phone was installed for work purposes, and the bill was paid by his employer.

      1. Yes: ever more complex – as well as being cheaper, generally less reliable and almost universally non-serviceable (even if that only because it is cheaper to buy a new one than fix the old one).

  2. I remember the “time” phone number in my hometown, had the same, or at least a similar, voice as the normal phone announcements (Like “This number is no longer in service” etc.., was pretty similar to the Austrailian one, minus the accent, and it would just say “At the tone, Pacific Standard Time will be eight forty-two and twenty seconds [beeeep]”, I would think having the three pips would make it easier to sync a clock to it.

    The voice on this one, though, does sound fairly similar to the time announcement on WWV, except on WWV the time was announced on the minute, and you’d get a pip every second (and the pips changed, IIRC the first 30 seconds were just the pips, the last 30 seconds were pips with an overtone, and then at the top of the minute it’d say “At the tone, eight hours, forty-two minutes, coordinated universal time [beep]”

  3. When I was young I could “dial” SH2- and those same suffix numbers by tapping the hook switch. Hard to do on a cell phone now but the time service is still there, still calling it’s sponsor (a grocery) by the name they don’t use anymore.

  4. In Pittsburgh, Duquesne Light used to offer the service on GRant-1-4501. Originally it was just a short commercial and the time; later on, they crammed in the current temperature (in a rather rushed voice).

  5. In St. Louis (US Central Time Zone; -5 from UTC) we still have a Time and Temperature phone line. I just tried it. Apparently you have to listen to a commercial first though and it’s followed-up by a weather forecast. (314)-321-2222 for those curious. If you stay on the phone they offer other services by using your touch-tone pad, including “free directory service” (I assume you have to listen to more ads).

  6. When I was a teenager I needed a rack mount enclosure so I hit my local surplus store. I found a box. They had no idea what it was, I had no idea what it was, at first anyway. It turned out to be the electro mechanical guts of a big outdoor digital clock. Silly kid I was, thinking all these things were electronic. Guess again. The innards best resembled the guts of an old “dinger” pinball machine. The time standard was a synchronous motor. I regret not keeping that intact now. It would have been another cool old piece to trip over in the lab.

  7. “eleven, five, and twenty seconds” sounds really weird. I had to listen like five times to figure out what “eleven-five” was… Ohhhh, “eleven Oh-five.”
    Guess that’s a product of the digital- clock era?

  8. I have just called a time service here in Poland ! Still works at +48 19226. I remember that in 80s and 90s it was possible to order a wake-up call talking to real human operator.
    A couple of other services are also available. For example you can listen to children stories at +48 19228.

  9. Heh. I have an older Raspberry Pi in my bedroom hooked to a speaker that announces the time every five minutes while I’m getting ready for work so I’ll know if I’m running late. It uses AWS “Polly” to do text to speech. Actually it caches the MP3 files into a database and associates the text so it doesn’t have to go to the net for phrases it already “knows”. And, of course, it uses the female British voice! (“Amy”, I think.)

  10. Some years ago, I saw the UK Speaking Clock in the Telecommunications gallery at the Science Museum in London. An old, decommissioned one, of course. I expect it’s still in the collection, but I don’t think it’s on display at the moment.

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