A brief history of the British Speaking Clock

Tick tock, learn about the clock

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The modern world, it seems, is divided. There are older people who understand what you’re talking about when you say, “At the third stroke, the time will be eight, forty-four and ten seconds, bip, bip, bip.” And then there are younger ones who instinctively back away from you (especially during the bips), the incomprehension on their faces mixed just a little bit with fear. For many of us, British Telecom’s Speaking Clock (or TIM) – which next week celebrates its 80th anniversary – is so much the 
last word in reliability and accu
racy that we have never asked
 ourselves why the recorded
 message includes the bizarre
 word “stroke”. But younger
 people know not of the
 Speaking Clock (accessed by 
dialing 123), and are liable to
point, mutely, at the time 8:44 
displayed on their smartphones, having 
no idea that the conveying of precise synchronised time to the British populace was, ever, not as simple as that.

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I’m now a bit of an expert on the Speaking Clock’s 80-year history, having been involved in making a Radio 4 documentary, A Brief History of TIM, to be broadcast this Saturday. My producer took me to see the first two Speaking Clock machines (from 1936 and 1963), which are preserved at the British Horological Institute in Nottinghamshire. We visited the old Holborn Telephone Exchange and searched the rather disappointing empty basement for the precise site of the first machine. We met the owner of the current (fourth) Speaking Clock voice, Sara Mendes da Costa. And along the way we learnt the most astonishing fact of all: that about 12 million calls are still made each year to the Speaking Clock, despite all those digital devices that nowadays inform us, at the press of a button, exactly what the time is.

But to put it another way, we now always know what the time is… in London. It goes without saying that all our clocks are synchronised to Greenwich time. We forget that prior to the coming of the railways (with those all-important timetables), there was no such thing as national time. When it was midday in London, it might be only 11.49 in Bristol, and it didn’t much matter. The story goes that when post coaches arrived in the provinces, the drivers would announce what the time was according to their timepieces (set in London), and that this practice is the origin of the expression, “Passing the time of day”. It is lovely to think of simple villagers in remote regions scurrying off to tell their delighted friends and neighbours the pointless news that down in London it was a quarter-past three. But in the end, the need was serious. When portly Victorian railway passengers started to miss their connections at Crewe, it became necessary, mainly through telegraphy, to communicate Greenwich Mean Time to every part of the nation.

Everything about the Speaking Clock makes you go all shivery about time, I find. For one thing, at the British Horological Institute you can still listen to Ethel Jane Cain telling you the time as it was heard in 1936. But more profoundly, TIM was an automated system that was, itself, ahead of its time. One can only imagine the novelty of this recorded voice on the GPO subscribers of the 1930s. Prior to this, they had been able to call the telephone exchange and ask what the time was (operators were trained to say, “The time, by the exchange clock, is two twenty-five.”) But now there was this infallible machine, with all the component parts of its beautifully enunciated announcement triggered by a light beam through a set of revolving glass discs. This was cutting-edge stuff, and it was extremely successful. But it was also the beginning of the end, in a way. We are no longer “subscribers”, of course, and if you’re anything like me, the mere word “customer” in this context makes your heart positively sink. As for automated messages, the novelty wore off long ago. What annoys me most is when a number is engaged and the message says, “To use Ringback, press 5” – and then, when you press 5, it says, infuriatingly, “Sorry, Ringback is not available on this number.”

Why do people still call the Speaking Clock? Personally, I often call it on the days the clocks change, because after manually adjusting the cooker display, and the various battery clocks, and any watches that are lying about, I get confused about which ones I’ve done, and need a quick infusion of reassurance. Evidently Armistice Day is a popular one for the Speaking Clock, too, because of the synchronised silence. The other predictable spike comes on New Year’s Eve. Until I was forced to think about it, though, I had never realised what a rare quality this amazing and venerable service stands for: absolute accuracy. In this world of relativist quibbling – where you can say to someone, “It’s illegal to cycle on the pavement” and they’ll riposte, “Yeah? Define illegal” – isn’t it marvellous that there is some- thing so absolute, so incontrovertible? My connected-to-the-internet computer tells me the time, as it happens, but I have come to realise (by being perpetually out of the door too late) that it is always slow by four minutes. But if the Speaking Clock tells you that, at the third stroke, it will be 9.45 precisely, you know that it not only speaks with total authority, but that, for eight whole decades, it always has.

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A Brief History of TIM premieres 10:30am Saturday on Radio 4