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How did they make those incredibly boring “time of day” recordings?

Dear Cecil:

We're having a debate where I work concerning how those excruciatingly dull phone recordings for the correct time of day are made. A secretary friend of mine contends that a monotonic woman was forced to sit in front of a microphone for 12 hours straight reading off the time at ten-second intervals. This tape, once made, could be distributed nationally to any city which adheres to a 24-hour-a-day framework, and the monotonic woman would quickly achieve national fame. The woman certainly deserves recognition for her ability to suppress bodily functions (in even the mildest forms) for 12 hours straight. Anyway, could you clear this up?

Rhonda L., Ridgewood, New Jersey

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

What do you mean, “any city which adheres to a 24-hour-a-day framework”? What do they have in Ridgewood, New Jersey–a 23-hour day? At any rate, the origin of the time-of-day recording wasn’t quite so heroic as you make it out to be. (I base the following remarks on the set-up in Chicago, but the folks at New York Bell say things worked similarly there, and I presume the same is true of other major cities.) In the early days of the century, time was a free service, with operators individually answering each call. That got to be too much of a burden, though, and the service was discontinued in 1918. It was resumed in 1928, when a group of unfortunate wage slaves was put to work reading the correct time at 15-second intervals into a mike. Half an hour was all they could take before their minds cracked. Some years later Bell switched to a recording featuring the voice of one Mary Moore, an employee of the Audichron Company from Atlanta, Georgia, who had graduated from Vassar as a drama major in 1939. Ms. Moore achieved immortality by reading each segment of the time-of-day message–i.e., the hours, minutes, and seconds–separately, just once. The pieces were subsequently assembled into a coherent, if boring, whole by an ingenious playback device, a modern version of which is still in use today. In the offices of the typical recorded-message company (the government made Bell turn time, weather, and other such services over to independent outfits in 1983), you’ll find a machine (sometimes two machines–one is used for back-up) with two spinning magnetic drums. One has the hours and minutes recorded on it, the other has the seconds. These generate the message you hear. The machine is periodically synchronized with the radio time signal issued by the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado. That’s all there is to it.

Cecil Adams

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