Talking Clock? That’s Nothing New

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.

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A Talking Clock For The 21st Century

The Talking Clock service is disappearing, and it’s quite possible that few of you will be aware of its passing. One of the staples of twentieth-century technology, the Talking Clock service was the only universally consumer-available source of accurate time information away from hourly radio time signals in the days before cheap radio-controlled clocks, or GPS. You’d dial (on a real dial, naturally!) a telephone number, to be greeted with a recorded voice telling you what the time would be at the following beep. Clocks were set, phone companies made a packet, and everybody was happy with their high-tech audio horology.

[Nick Sayer] used the USNO Master Clock telephone feed to see in the New Year, but had to make do with a voice from another time zone. It seems that there are no services remaining that provide one in Pacific time. His solution to the problem for a future year? Make his own Talking Clock, one that derives its time reference from GPS.

At its heart is a SkyTraq Venus838LPx miniature GPS module coupled to an ATMega32E5 microcontroller. The speech comes in the form of pre-recorded samples stored on an SD card. There is a small on-board amplifier to drive a single speaker. For extreme authenticity perhaps it could be attached to a GSM mobile phone module to provide a dial-up service, but he’s got everything he needs for a New Years Eve.

Want to hear what that that bit of nostalgia sounded like? Check out the quick clip below. As for modern replacements, we’ve had at least one talking clock here in the past, but not one using GPS.

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