“At the Tone the Time Will Be…” – A Timeless Tradition of Dialing the US Naval Observatory

In an era where smartphones reign supreme, and digital clocks are omnipresent, there exists a peculiar relic of the past that continues to captivate the curious and the nostalgic. A simple phone number, 202-762-1401, holds the key to a journey through time, transporting callers back to an era when the phrase “At the tone, the time will be…” was a familiar refrain.

This phone number belongs to the U.S. Naval Observatory, and it offers a time-by-phone service that, despite the ubiquity of modern time-telling devices, still sees millions of callers each year. It’s not a scam, as many might initially suspect, but rather a testament to the enduring allure of this timeless tradition.

As the majority of Americans now possess smartphones that continuously display the time, it’s remarkable that over 3 million people called the USNO number in 2015 alone, seeking nothing more than the correct time. Demetrios Matsakis, the chief scientist for time services at the Naval Observatory, intriguingly noted, “There’s an interesting sociology to it.” He added, “They don’t call as much on the weekend, and the absolute minimum time they call is Christmas. On big holidays, people don’t care about the time. But we get a big flood of calls when we switch to daylight [saving] time and back.”

Newspaper notice (1918) warning telephone subscribers that New England Telephone & Telegraph Company operators will soon refuse to provide time of day on subscriber request.

Calling this number is akin to upholding a tradition that dates back to the early days of telephone technology when anyone could effortlessly ask a human operator for the time. Throughout the 20th century, telephone companies such as Ma Bell and the subsequent telecommunications companies born after the 1984 Bell Companies breakup offered callers the convenience of obtaining both the current time and temperature. The time was typically updated every 5 or 10 seconds, marked by the unmistakable beep tone that etched a fleeting memory in the minds of those who called. The numbers were elegantly simple and easy to remember. In New York City, residents dialed Meridian 1212, while Baltimoreans dialed 844-1212. Out west, the service went by the name POPCORN, spelled out on your phone keypad.

Callers would be greeted by a friendly message, often narrated by different voices in various regions. Some services incorporated messages from sponsors, while others remained more straightforward. In the pre-digital age, many relied on this service to reset their clocks following power outages or other disruptions. Verizon discontinued its service in 2011, following AT&T’s earlier decision to do so in 2007. However, in select communities, local businesses and organizations still carry on this legacy.

With clocks appearing on an increasing array of devices, from cable boxes to household appliances and the ever-present smartphones, one might assume that the demand for the USNO service would dwindle. Yet, contrary to expectations, the number of calls has been on the rise since 2009, according to Matsakis. “We expected it to drop off because with cellphones you get the time right there,” he explained. “But calls have gone up since 2009.”

Mechanical speaking clock at the Victorian Telecommunications Museum

Today, when callers dial the USNO line, they hear the same voice they have since 1978. Actor Fred Covington, known for his role as an auctioneer in the original 1977 Roots miniseries, lent his voice to record every conceivable permutation of the time over several days. Though Covington passed away in 1993, his voice endures, breathing life into a service that many might have thought had vanished into the annals of history.

In an age where technology constantly evolves, and old traditions often fade away, the US Naval Observatory’s time-by-phone service stands as a reminder that some things are truly timeless. So, the next time you find yourself curious about the time, take a moment to dial 202-762-1401, and as the familiar voice says, “At the tone, the time will be…” you may just find yourself transported back to a simpler time when a phone call could answer one of life’s most fundamental questions.

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