Day 609: At The Tone The Count Will Be 609,000 Words… BEEP!

originally published August 31, 2013

There was a moment in 1933 when it seemed that technology had finally found a way to bridge all peoples, to unite us under a singular cloak of shared information and otherworldly convenience. It was a glorious rebirth for the human race – and no, I’m not talking about the invention of television, email or online pornography… this is all about the Speaking Clock.

For those too young to remember, there was once a time when you could call a number and have a delightful automated voice tell you the time. No longer would people have to snoop around the walls for a clock or bother some jaunty fellow on the street and ask him to check his pocket watch. Maybe this was the beginning of our collective societal disconnect – the first moment when we could forego an interaction with a stranger by turning to the cold comfort of technology. Ah, but technology, she provides doesn’t she?

The Paris observatory, that same sacred stanchion of science that had used the Eiffel Tower to broadcast radio signals back and forth to the United States, launched the first public speaking clock in ’33. Other technologically capable nations were quick to leap aboard the fad; some even provided a brief weather report.

The technology for running a speaking clock was, back in the 30’s, somewhere between antique and steampunk. The system in the UK, introduced on July 24, 1936, utilized a voice recorded optically onto a series of glass discs. Those were then processed by a complex array of motors, photocells and valves, all of which took up an entire room. The unit ran on a continuous cycle so that anyone who called in could be treated to pre-recorded updates of the accurate time every ten seconds.

Over in the Netherlands, where the speaking clock actually went into effect two years earlier, they were making use of a series of loops contained within a giant drum. An electronic pulse would cause the loops to shift every minute, so they weren’t able to offer updates every ten seconds. Nor did their setup look like something out of a 1950’s Commando Cody movie.

Australians used to get treated to the personal touch, as their speaking clock phone number would connect them to a live operator who would simply relay the time. That would be a sweet job, though I suspect that none of your shifts would pass particularly quickly. The human element was replaced by a machine in 1954, and then by a digital machine in 1990, provided by a wonderfully-named company called Assmann Australia.

In Finland they’re feeling the encroaching obsolescence of the speaking clock system. Their ‘Neiti Aika’ system received 352,310 calls during its first year in 1938, but only 1300 in September, 2006. Most American states have phased out their speaking clocks, given that every cell phone and computer is equipped with a dependable time display, rendering the service somewhat moot. I checked with our local speaking clock number, which I somehow still remember from my youth (421-1111 for my fellow Edmontonites), and it now connects me to South Edmonton Storage. I’m sure if I’d stayed on the line for the next customer service representative, they could have told me the time. But it’s not the same.

But what about the stars of these numbers? Who were they?

Jane Barbe is as close as you’ll ever get to a celebrity telephone personality. She started out spouting time, temperature and weather for the Audichron Company in 1963. She informed people when numbers had been disconnected, and gave out instructions on some of the world’s earliest voicemail setups. By 2000, it was believed her voice was heard by as many as 300 million people every week.

Barbe even learned how to mimic an Aussie accent so she could become the voice of the Australian Phone Company. When she died it became a significant news story, as for the first time in their lives people were made aware that there was a person behind all those standardized phone recordings. As an interesting aside, Jane Barbe’s son, David, was the bass player in the alt-rock band Sugar, and has made a name for himself as a successful music producer. It’s nice that he hasn’t simply ridden his mother’s celebrity coattails.

Pat Fleet started out working side by side with Jane Barbe, and wound up becoming her Padawan apprentice – the Obi-Wan to Jane Barbe’s Qui Gon Jinn. Hers was the automated voice that used to tell payphone users they needed to plunk in more money. In 1989 she became the voice of AT&T, and to this day if someone is apologizing for the fact that the number you’re trying to reach is not in service, that sincere sentiment is probably emitting from the compassionate throat of Pat Fleet.

Joan Kenley is another voice common to automated voicemail systems. The sound of her voice uttering “Press one for…” is probably being heard by a dozen people this second. Joan is also a radio talk show host, a psychologist, and perhaps most important role was the voice of the telephone recordings heard on several episodes of The Simpsons.

Mary Moore was the voice of Bell’s speaking clock for years, notable for transforming 9 and 5 into two-syllable words (NY-un and FY-vuh) so that they could be easily distinguished on crappy, static-filled lines.

Following a nation-wide search for “the girl with the golden voice”, England was treated to the stylings of Jane Cain, the first speaking clock voice in the United Kingdom. Jane held the job from 1936 through 1963 when she was replaced by Pat Simmons, who had won a £500 prize along with the job. One of the speaking clock machines that Pat had used ended up on Antiques Roadshow about five years back. The show’s clock expert explained that the motor on the machine had mysteriously broken down on October 29, 2005 – the same day that Pat had died. Creepy.

Clearly we are in an age in which the speaking clock is unnecessary. I suspect it was unnecessary decades ago; I can remember calling our local time number, but I have no idea why I did. We had clocks in every room of our house, sometimes several within view at any given time. Perhaps it was the novelty, or maybe there was a strange comfort in knowing that some central office was keeping track of the time, making sure it never slipped out of sync on us.

Or maybe I just liked playing with phones long before they ever offered anything even remotely as fun as Angry Birds. I was ahead of my time.

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