I was fairly young when some unsuspecting adult thought it would be a good idea to explain to me that I could always get the current time by dialing POPCORN.
I proceeded to abuse that information by dialing the number every five minutes to find out what time it was — among other things. I figured if the Time Lady was so all knowing about the time of day, she might have the answers to other questions as well. What can I say, I was young and Google hadn’t been invented yet.
I never did get any other answers from the Time Lady. She stuck to the time with a zen-like focus. In retrospect I think she might have what we now call “obsessive compulsive”.
Over the years I lost track of the Time Lady. Recently there hasn’t been much need to call her. In fact, I was sort of surprised to discover that she was still around and giving out the time to anyone who called — but not for much longer.
This week AT&T announced that the Time Lady’s time has run out. After September, California residents will no longer be able to pick up the phone and dial the time. AT&T is discontinuing the service, citing failing equipment, the need for additional phone numbers, and, presumably, a general lack of use, as reasons.
Everyone who hears this story is just a little bit sad, and yet none of the people I’ve talked to about this can remember the last time they dialed the time. There’s just no reason to. These days nearly every phone displays the time without having to dial a number.
Increasingly consumer electronics devices are setting the time without human intervention. While the Time Lady still had a place in a world of VCR’s blinking 12:00, DVRs get the time through the cable or satellite service. Even my Roku Soundbridge sets the time using the network time protocol — the same method most PC’s use to set their system clocks.
California and Nevada are the last two states where the telephone time is still available — and now California is pulling the plug. Nevada is not far behind. According to yesterday’s LA Times article, phone companies are discontinuing the service once the current generation of time machines have reached the end of their service cycles. You read that right, the machine that plays the Time Lady’s voice is called a “time machine”. I suppose this means the time machine technicians are losing their jobs as well.
AT&T indicates the change will free up 300,000 phone numbers in Southern California alone. I’d hate get one of those numbers. Having one of the former time phone numbers will probably be something like being one of the original time operators from the 1920’s. When the telephone time service was first introduced there really were live operators standing by waiting to read the time to callers.
The customers who are assigned these newly available numbers are certain to be pestered by occasional calls from anonymous time seekers — likely the same people who won’t be aware of the switch to digital broadcast television when that happens.
If you live in California you have a few weeks left to call the Time Lady. On midnight September 19th she’ll give her final performance.