The story of the speaking clock in Britain

Precisely! It needed just four words to tell you this article is about the speaking clock. Known officially as Timeline and more commonly as plain TIM, the speaking clock is one of those essential features of everyday life to which you give scarcely a second thought It's there when you want it and that's it, isn't it?

Well, yes and well, no. In fact it hasn't always been there and it has changed over the years. And there's quite a bit more to TIM than history, as I found out when I started to dig out a bit of information about this national institution.


Institution is probably a fair word since as a nation we seem to be remarkably keen on ringing up the speaking clock. Even in its first year, 1936, the service registered nearly 13 million calls and it was not a nationwide service then—that came six years later. Today we make more than 135 million calls a year and that's a lot of watches being checked.

Major organisations such as British Rail and London Weekend Television have permanent feeds of the clock from BT into their private internal phone systems so employees can check the time without making an outside call. The timing of all ITV television programmes is synchronised to TIM as well, so when your local station goes over to ITN for the News at Ten, this is done "at the third stroke". And perhaps the strangest—and certainly longest distance—call to the British speaking clock is from the factory in Hong Kong that which makes the handsets for  the new VideoPlus VCR programming system. The in-built clock is set to British time, courtesy of BT's Timeline service.

Crystal control

The accuracy of the speaking clock is beyond reproach, within five thousandths of a second in fact. With a built-in crystal oscillator and microprocessor logic control, the complete apparatus is  made of solid-state microchips and occupies no more shelf space than a small suitcase does. Contrast that with the array of motors, glass discs, photocells and valves of the original speaking clock back in 1936—it took up most of the floorspace of a small room!

The original speaking clock message was recorded and replayed rather like the optical sound track of a film and the equipment represented the state of the art of current technology in those days. This lasted until 1963, when it was replaced by more modern recording technology, using a magnetic drum. It gave way to the present digital system in 1984 and this has no moving parts at all.

The unquestioned accuracy of the speaking clock has also led to the association of Accurist Watches, who since 1986 have sponsored the Timeline announcements. With those 135 million calls a year, this may well be the most frequently heard advertising message of all time.

New voice for old

Not surprisingly, the voice of TIM has changed over the years, somewhat akin to the regular reincarnations of the other popular Time Lord,  and it was in fact Colin Baker, the actor who played Doctor Who on BBC television, who made the change or "switch in time" to the present equipment in 1985. It was not his voice that was heard, however.

Selection of the clearest and untheatrical voice has always been by national competition among telephone staff. A telephonist, Jane Cain started it off in 1936 and lasted until 1963, when she handed over to Miss Pat Simmons, a supervisor in a London exchange. The present voice, belonging to assistant supervisor Brian Cobby of Withdean exchange, Brighton, created a bit of a stir in 1985 when it broke the tradition of female "Golden Voices". Somehow a man's voice seemed strange, though many other telephone administrations had found no compelling reason for choosing a woman. (Brian Cobby, an actor by profession,  was selected from 12 finalists in BT’s Golden Voice competition, on 5th December 1984.)

But we British have our little quirks—only we could select a female voice and then call it TIM! In fact TIM was the three-letter code, short for TIMe, that users dialled in the days of alphabetical dials and the name has stuck ever since. Nowadays we dial the more prosaic 8081, or in big cities, the more memorable 123.

Clicks and buzzes

But what did people do before the speaking clock was invented if they wanted a time check? Simple: they rang the operator and asked her the time by the exchange clock on the wall, but this was not precise to the second, nor could the exchange always answer just when the customer wanted. The first genuine speaking clock machine was introduced in the USA in 1927, coming to Paris in 1933, The Hague in 1934 and Switzerland in 1935. But automatic time service (of a Heath-Robinson kind) had been available to telephone users in San Francisco since the late 19th century; by listening for to an observatory clock at least a minute and decoding clicks and single and double buzzes against some detailed instructions you could set a pocket watch—but it helped if you already knew more or less what the time was! A proper speaking clock is far less trouble!

(Written in 1992)

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