Talking Clocks

Gallery opened: 21 Nov 2023

Updated: 27 Nov 2023

Hiller Speaking Clock updated

Not in chronological order

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Some people have thought that a speaking clock was a good idea. The only one I have ever heard was the Post Office Speaking Clock service in Britain, which gave the accurate time in speech over the phone when you dialed the appropriate number. In the old days when you had dials with letters on you dialed 'TIM' equivalent to 846.

The first telephone speaking clock service was introduced in France on 14th February 1933 by Ernest Esclangon, in association with the Paris Observatory, which at an earlier period (from 1881) provided the time for the Paris Pneumatic Clock Network.

I was rather surprised to find that the service still exists in Britain; you now dial 123 on a British Telecom landline. It does not work on a mobile phone.

Many countries have switched off their telephone time service due to lack of demand.

Left: The Hiller Speaking Clock: 1910-13

The Bernard Hiller Speaking Clock (Sprechende Uhr in German) had verbal announcements recorded in hill-and-dale fashion on a celluloid film strip; and these were played every quarter-hour. The gramophone-type reproducer (just visible behind the top film roller) connected with a short vertical trumpet made of papier-mâché. The mechanism includes a double-spring motor, presumably one spring is for the clock and the other for the sprocket-drive to the film. The timepiece movement had a pin-pallet escapement.

There is a lengthy video (with German commentary) on YouTube, dealing with repairing one of these clocks. Towards the end you can hear the clock speaking; you have to listen quite hard to make out the time it is saying.

The question arises as to what was the market for these clocks; were they intended for blind people?

Left: The Hiller Speaking Clock: 1910-13

Showing the handle for winding up the spring motors. The clock weighed a hefty 10 kg.

There is more info here.

There is a Wikipedia page on Talking_clocks, not to be confused with the page on speaking clocks which distribute time over the telephone.

Left: The Hiller Speaking Clock: 1910-13

This clock was recently offered at auction. It had Serial Number 269, but this does not mean that at least 269 clocks were built. Manufacturers have a sneaky habit of starting serial numbers at non-zero (eg 0100) to give the impression that a product is more established than it really is. I know, because I've done it myself.

Left: Human Speaking Clock: 1930

The date of this picture is given as October 1930, (or 1920 in some places) and the location as Chicago, USA. The young lady spoke the time every 15 seconds, which must have been a desperately boring job. An automatic system was introduced in 1937.

There are two clocks, presumably so the service continued if one of them stopped. If, however, one became inaccurate but kept running, you would not know which was correct. For this reason ships, where the accurate time was a matter of life-and-death for navigation, carried three chronometers, so you could go with the majority. Darwin's Beagle carried an unprecedented 22 chronometers on her second voyage. For very good reasons.

Left: The GPO Speaking Clock: 1936

The time service was introduced in 1936 by the General Post Office, which handled telephones at that period. Announcements were recorded optically onto glass disks in a similar way to a film soundtrack, and read by photocells. This meant that there was no mechanical wear on the recordings, and the only maintenance required was the occasional change of lamp or photocell. In 1963, the optical machine was replaced by modern recordings on a magnetic drum, and this was replaced in 1984 by a solid-state system.

Wikipedia has an excellent page on speaking clocks worldwide.

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