Remember calling the phone company for the time? Here’s how POPCORN worked, plus the face behind the voice

Remember calling the phone company for the current time

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Call the speaking clock for the time, anytime (1957)

The Mountain Democrat (Placerville, Calif.) July 18, 1957

How to call to find out the time of day

Just dial ROchester 7-8900, the new time number that goes into effect Sunday along with the start of dial telephone service.

But don’t bother to say thank you when the girl tells you the time. Her voice is recorded, and is broadcast by an electronic time machine called an audichron that isn’t even in Placerville.

The audichron is kept in Pacific Telephone’s San Francisco office, and gives out the time, via a special long-distance circuit, to almost everyone who asks from Oregon to Bakersfield. The company figures it is easier that way than to supply a time machine to every town.

Vintage audichron speaking clock - Phone company

The audichron is manufacturing in Atlanta, Georgia, and the recorded voice belongs to an Atlanta housewife named Mary Moore. People who work around the telephone company call her Audie.

Actually, the company has two audichrons in San Francisco. One broadcasts the time, and the other stands by on an emergency basis.

The automatic time system was started by Pacific Telephone in 1948, about 20 years after operators first started telling people the time as a public service.

But apparently, a lot of people still don’t realize that it is a machine at the other end of the phone. For each Christmas, the telephone company gets dozens of greetings cards addressed to “the girl who gives the time.”

MORE: How do you use a rotary-dial phone? Find out, plus get top telephone tips from the olden days

At the tone the time will be - Baltimore Sun Dec 17 1972

Voice of ‘time’ is alive and gracious and living in Atlanta (1976)

Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, California) Feb 7, 1976

When was the last time you called Jane Barbe?

Jane who?

Jane Barbe - the time lady on the phone - Telephone company

There is a good chance you called her today. Fifteen million people in thousands of cities throughout the country did.

If you don’t recognize her name, you probably would recognize her voice when she told you. “The time is…”

Jane Barbe is the voice of the time, also know as “popcorn.”

As a child, I recall picturing a woman sitting by a clock, answering the telephone when I called. That poor woman, working 24 hours a day, just waiting for me to call, and she wasn’t even allowed to talk to me, no matter what I said to her.

I even remember trying to get her to laugh. Either wasn’t very funny or she sure was disciplined. Then came the revelation — she is a recording.

MORE: Look how colorful vintage phones used to be! Dial & touch-tone phones came in lots of decorator colors

POPCORN from 1972 in reverse
Foster Fenwick from the St Louis Post-Dispatch (Jan 27, 1972)

Even after I grew up, I still felt sorry for her. I imagined her one day years ago with pots of coffee trying to stay awake and alert for 12 hours, starting with, “The time is 12 and one second.” I thought how she must have cheered after she said, “The time is 11:59 and 59 seconds.”

Then one day last week, my 11-year-old son called me to the phone frantically.

“Mom, Mom, the time has a new voice.”

I listened, and somehow the voice sounded softer, but similar. I listened some more, and it was different. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Another woman had to sit down with pots of coffee for 12 hours.” I even wondered if the other woman had died.

ALSO SEE: Before you could call 911, you used to dial ‘0’ for the operator to get help

Well, the popcorn lady of my childhood was Mary Moore, and no one at the Audichron Company in Atlanta, Georgia, who employed her, could tell me anything about her, except that she made the original recording in 1948.

Back then, she said, “At the tone, the time will be…” Then some years later, the tone was taken out, and she made another recording, simply saying. “The time is…”

Calling for the time - POPCORN 1979

Well, the dream of my childhood came true last week: I talked to the time, and she talked back.

Calling for the lady who tells the time

I called her at her home in Atlanta. In a warm, soft drawl, she told me that it pleased her that someone cared who she is.

In Atlanta, the time is given by a male, so she doesn’t hear herself.

Delighted when I told her she had a softer, more pleasing voice than Mary Moore, she said she made herself believe she was really talking to someone when she made the recording.

Neither Mary Moore nor Jane Barbe sat for 12 hours. It took Jane Barbe about an hour to record it.

What you hear are three different tapes. All she had to do was say one through 12 (for hours), then one through 59 (for minutes), then ‘one second’ through “59 seconds,” ending with the word “exactly,” for time exact to the minute. The machine takes care of the rest, combining the three recordings automatically.

YouTube video

Jane Barbe has been recording the time for other areas of the country for about 12 years, but we just got her in the Bay Area, because Pacific Telephone purchased new equipment. The new time of day mechanism loses 50 milliseconds annually, or one second every 20 years, so old Marvy Moore had to go.

MORE: See some vintage touch-tone phones with old-fashioned push buttons

Jane Barbe was chosen for her sense of timing and her ability to adapt the accent for the part of the country for which she is recording. How would Californians like a Georgia accent when they called for the time?

She also does messages, such as “You have reached a disconnected number,” and “The number you have reached is not in service,” for some parts of the country. [Hear some of those messages in the video below.]

One day, she called Western Union, and heard herself saying, “All of our operators are busy at the moment…”

It shook her up so badly she had to hang up, she said.

Taking a call in bed - pink telephone 1950s

In some areas of the country, the time is sponsored and there is a four-second commercial every minute.

Just so you’ll know a little about Jane the next time you call her. Audichron’s public relations department representative described her as an attractive strawberry blonde in her forties.

She and her husband John write, produce and record radio and television jingles and commercials.

In case you want to ask her about the children. Susan is 14, David, 12. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia. A fine arts major, she toured the country as a vocalist with the Buddy Morrow Band. That’s where she and John met.

She has also been an advertising agency art director and a recreation director. Millions saw her when she appeared on the television show “What’s My Line.”

My excitement at having her home phone number was slightly dampened the first time I called. I got a recorded message. “This is Jane Barbe. If you will leave your name and number…”

Calling for the time & old phone announcements (video)

Hear some of the top telephone hits of yesteryear, including…

At the tone, the time will be…

I’m sorry – your call cannot be completed as dialed…

I’m sorry – the number you have reached is not in service at this time…

The number you called (#) has been disconnected…

Please make a note of it.

YouTube video

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. The most useful function for telephone time checks was if you needed to reset your clocks after a power outage, or if you wanted to synch your clocks and watches when switching between Standard and Daylight Saving Time. Phone time checks seem like an anachronism today, our phones and computers are synched with highly accurate time servers. But many communities still have local time-and-temperature numbers, usually sponsored by a local business. The NIST supports a time check number at 303-499-7111, and the US Naval Observatory has one at 202-762-1401.

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