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BT’s speaking clock will be 75 years old

20th July 2011 Print

Britain’s famous Speaking Clock celebrates its 75th birthday on July 24, 2011. Now a national institution and part of Britain’s heritage, the Speaking Clock was the first of the pre-recorded information services in the UK, provided through telephones.

Created for people who wanted to know the time and did not have a watch or clock to hand, the clock was initially only available in the London directory area, with the first British Speaking Clock introduced on July 24, 1936.

The Speaking Clock was designed and constructed at the Post Office Engineering Research Station at Dollis Hill in North London. The time announcements were automatically co-ordinated on the hour with Greenwich meantime signals.

In order to access the service, subscribers would dial the first three letters of the word ‘time’ as dials at the time included letters as well as numbers to aid automatic calls. Dialling T. I. M. led to its common name 'TIM'. The service went national six years later.

Today, around 30 million calls every year are made to the service, now officially called “Timeline”. People dial 123 in the UK to hear the modern service.

The ‘voice’ of the BT Speaking Clock is as famous as the facility itself, with only four permanent voices ever used. Although there have been other voices used for charity events. They included Lenny Henry who recorded a special version in aid of Comic Relief for a two week period in March 2003. Later on that same year, 12 year old Alicia Roland won the same opportunity, this time for Childline.

Mae Whitman, the voice of Disney’s Tinkerbell, also became the voice for the Speaking Clock in January 2009, coinciding with the Tinkerbell film released at the same time. Also in 2009 Comic Relief helped raise money with celebrity voices such as Gary Barlow, Cheryl Cole, Chris Moyles, Kimberley Walsh and Fearne Cotton.

Jane Cain was the first voice, winner of a Post Office ‘Golden Voice’ competition, and used from 1936 until 1963. Pat Simmons, a London telephone exchange supervisor, became the second voice from 1963 until 1985.

The third voice belonged to Brian Cobby who became the first male voice at 11am on April 2, 1985. An actor by profession before he joined BT as an assistant supervisor at a Brighton exchange, Brian was selected from 12 finalists in BT’s competition on December 5, 1984.

Users who were around in the 1960s who listen hard enough might detect a familiarity – Brian was also the voice of “5-4-3-2-1 Thunderbirds are go!” in the famous Gerry Anderson TV series.
The fourth and current voice is Sara Mendes da Costa from Brighton & Hove.

She became Speaking Clock voice at 8am on April 2, 2007. Sara won a BT competition during 2006 to find a new voice from the public, which had almost 18,500 entrants, simultaneously raising more than £200,000 for BBC Children in Need.

Originally the accuracy of the BT Speaking Clock was one-tenth of a second, but it is now accurate to within five thousandths of a second.

David Hay, head of BT Heritage, said: “75 years ago BT's technology created the speaking clock which remains a much loved part of British life today. Celebrating its diamond jubilee demonstrates BT's determination to preserve the heritage of the world's oldest communications company.”