The first two telephone numbers a little kid learns are usually 911 and their own.
When I was about 5 years old, I decided to call 911—just to see what would happen, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to. When a dispatcher answered, I promptly hung up. They promptly called back.
This led to a conversation I suspect many mothers have had with many curious children. It must have been around the same era when I learned of what seemed at the time to be a great secret of telephony. There was another number I could call, and I could call it any time and as many times as I wanted, without getting in trouble.
In Baltimore in the 1980s, if you dialed 844-1212, a pleasant automated voice would tell you the exact time. The message was something like this: “Good morning. At the tone, the time will be 8:55 and 50 seconds.” Then there was a curt beep, and the message would repeat with an updated time. You could keep listening as it counted up in increments of 10 seconds. Eventually, you got disconnected.
For a young child, there was something delightful about a sanctioned interaction with an otherwise mostly-off-limits technology—not to mention the magic of a conversation, however one-sided, with what sounded like a friendly robot. Apparently, as the newspaper comics below suggest, I wasn’t the only kid enthralled by the service.
The appeal of calling the time, for adults, was more practical. After an electrical outage, for instance, you might use the service to reset your clock. And though Verizon discontinued the line—along with a related telephone weather service—five years ago, the U.S. Naval Observatory still offers a time-by-phone service. (Call 202-762-1401 today, and you’ll hear a pleasant ticking sound followed by the announcement of the exact time, delivered in an old-timey-broadcasting voice.)
Not only does it still exist, but people still use it.
“We get 3 million calls per year!” said Demetrios Matsakis, the chief scientist for time services at the Naval Observatory. “And there’s an interesting sociology to it. They don’t call as much on the weekend, and the absolute minimum time they call is Christmas. On big holidays, people don’t care about the time. But we get a big flood of calls when we switch to Daylight [saving] time and back.”
As it turns out, people have been telephoning the time for generations. In the beginning, a telephone-based time service must have seemed like a natural extension of telegraph-based timekeeping—but it would have been radical in its own way, too, because it represented a key shift to an on-demand service. In the 19th century, big railroad companies had used the telegraph to transmit the time to major railway stations. By the early 20th century, people could simply pick up the telephone and ask a human operator for the time.
“A Western Union clock, corrected each day at noon by electric adjustment, has been installed in the office of the telephone company and in plain view of the operators,” an Indiana newspaper, The Hungtington Herald, reported in 1906.
During World War I, several cities discontinued such services to save time and labor, but many of them returned after the war. In New York, in the 1920s, you could ask for the time by dialing Meridian 1212—though in those days, there was a fee associated with the call. Automated systems emerged in the decades that followed, including one 1933 invention that featured a mechanical hand that picked up the phone receiver. By 1958, according to a New York Times article that year, the local service was getting about 90,000 calls a day. By the 1970s, a single market of callers generated hundreds of thousands of daily calls.
“For the last ten years,” the Times wrote, “Mrs. Mary Moore of Atlanta, Ga., has recorded: ‘At the tone, the time will be...’ Mrs. Moore, a Vassar graduate and a housewife with three children, announces the time for the Bell System in 240 communities.”
When I was calling the time, Jane Barbe was likely the announcer. In some markets, as part of her work as a recording artist for the Audichron Company, she also recorded sponsorship messages and information about the temperature.
For the sake of precision, Barbe’s voice wasn’t recorded on ribbons of tape—but instead preserved on what came to be known as time drums, “large cylindrical devices supported by heavy aluminum cylinders,” according to a 1976 article in The Detroit Free Press. “These drums are rotated at a constant speed and synchronized so callers can hear a smooth, continuous message.”
On the West Coast, the telephone time service was widely known as POPCORN, the letters that represented the numbers you had to dial—before it was discontinued in 2007. A National Institute of Standards and Technology facility in Colorado still has a number you can call for the time, and receives about 2,000 calls a day, according to its website. (It also has a special line for Hawaii callers—but, oddly, it gives Coordinated Universal Time, which isn’t a time zone but a time standard. No country or territory officially uses Coordinated Universal Time as their local time, though countries that use GMT often overlap with Coordinated Universal Time.)
Today, Matsakis told me, about 10,000 people call the Naval Observatory’s time service each day. And they hear the voice of Fred Covington. (He also played the auctioneer in the original Roots miniseries, among other film credits.)
“We expected it to drop off, because with cellphones you get the time right there,” Matsakis said. “But calls have gone up since 2009.”
The survival of the medium is perhaps surprising. But, more broadly, the desire to know the time is deeply culturally engrained. There’s a biological component, too. “The experience of time,” Claudia Hammond wrote in her book, Time Warped, “roots us in our mental reality.”
“Time is your way of connecting to the universe, to everything that’s going on,” Matsakis told me. That was the philosophy among ancient clock-makers, including those who constructed the great water clock of the Song dynasty, about 1,000 years ago, he says. (Earlier water clocks date back even farther, to as early as 4,000 years ago.) “They wanted to show the harmony of the universe.”
“Plus,” he added, “people’s interest in time goes way up when they have a plane to catch.”