They Won’t Be Giving You the Time of Day

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Fascinating article in the LA Times — via Slashdot — about the discontinuation of AT&T’s dial-the-time service. Apparently it dawned on somebody that it’s now completely useless, since clocks are sprinkled into every imaginable gadget now like some kind of inexpensive digital condiment. But the original telephone-time-telling technology was clearly some kind of absolutely fantastic retro-kludge:

Richard Frenkiel was assigned to work on the time machines when he joined Bell Labs in the early 1960s. He described the devices as large drums about 2 feet in diameter, with as many as 100 album-like audio tracks on the exterior. Whenever someone called time, the drums would start turning and a message would begin, with different tracks mixed together on the fly.

I am here and now putting out a call for any images or video of this device. And there’s a human story, too:

Time ladies — and a few gentlemen — came and went over the years. Then, in the 1950s, a woman named Mary Moore emerged as the nation’s leading time-teller. Her reading of hours, minutes and seconds was delivered in a distinctive if somewhat prissy tone. Moore’s odd pronunciation of the numbers 5 (“fiyev”) and 9 (“niyun”) influenced a generation of operators, much as flying ace Chuck Yeager’s West Virginia drawl is said to have been adopted by innumerable airline pilots.

By far the most prominent time lady was Jane Barbe, who succeeded Moore at Audichron in the 1960s. A former big band singer, Barbe (pronounced “Barbie”) went on to become the voice of recorded telephone messages in the 1970s and ’80s in the United States and elsewhere…

Barbe died of cancer-related complications in 2003 at age 74. It’s estimated that at the height of her fame, Barbe’s voice was heard worldwide about 40 million times a day.

She looks kind of exactly like you’d think.