Speaking Clock's 80th gets British Horological Institute toast

The original Speaking Clock Image copyright BHI
Image caption The original Speaking Clock - kept by the British Horological Institute in Nottinghamshire - gave the time accurate to one tenth of a second

The 80th anniversary of the Speaking Clock is being marked with an exhibition at the home of clock making.

More than 13m people used the Speaking Clock in its first year from 24 July 1936 and even now it enjoys about 12m calls a year.

Speaking Clock No 1 and No 2 can be seen at the British Horological Institute in Upton Hall in Nottinghamshire.

Sara Mendes da Costa, the fourth voice of the clock, will also be at the show.

Image copyright BT
Image caption Ethel Cain - the Girl with the Golden Voice - was the original Speaking Clock
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Telephonist Pat Simmons replaced Ethel Cain in 1963

Dudley Giles, chief executive of the BHI, said: "The Speaking Clock is a Great British institution. [The first clock] was in service on 24 July, 1936 and it remained in service for 27 years.

"It was then replaced with the next generation which used quartz technology and the voice of Pat Simmons."

Why a Speaking Clock?

  • Before telephones and accurate watches, people would wait for a stagecoach to arrive in their city and then ask the driver the time.
  • This led to the phrase: "Passing the time of day".
  • The General Post Office's association with accurate time led to people calling telephone operators to ask the time prompting the launch of the Speaking Clock
  • Up to 12m people still call the service each year
  • When it launched, calls cost one penny from home and 'tuppence' from a phone box. Today it is 38.9p per minute
  • It used to be called Tim as people would dial the first three letters of the word 'time'

Source: The BHI

Ethel Cain was selected as the first voice, from a pool of 15,000 telephone operators who worked for the GPO.

It was only after she had recorded the script - "At the third stroke, it will be... precisely" - that they noticed a slight speech impediment.

The microphone had picked up a slight whistle at the end of each her words and it took a year to remove from sections of the glass discs used in the machine.

Image caption Brian Cobby with the Speaking Clock shortly before his voice took over in 1984

Ms Mendes da Costa won a Children in Need competition in 2006, succeeding Brian Cobby to become only the fourth long-term voice of the clock.

Several celebrities have recorded the time for the clock for charity.

The exhibition is held at Upton Hall, near Newark, throughout the weekend.

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