At the Tone, the Time Lady Will Be Gone

The Time Lady, Jane Barbe

I was just a child when some well-meaning adult thought it would be a good idea to tell 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 also have the answers to other questions. 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. Instead, 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. I was 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 can no longer 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 for the termination.

Everyone who hears this story is just a little sad, and yet none of the people I’ve talked to can remember the last time they dialed the time. There’s just no reason to. These days nearly every phone displays the time without dialing 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 VCRs blinking 12:00, DVRs get the time through cable or satellite service. Even my Roku Soundbridge sets the time using the network time protocol — the same method most PCs use to set their system clocks.

California and Nevada are the last two states where 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 has 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 to get one of those numbers. It would be like being one of the original time operators from the 1920s. When the telephone time service was first introduced, live operators stood by waiting to read the time to callers.

The customers assigned these newly available numbers are sure 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 to call the Time Lady. On midnight September 19th, she gives her final performance.

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