An operator reads the time in 1937, prior to introduction of automated systems. (Courtesy Telecommunications History Group)
Here is a throwback to an earlier era some of you may remember. For decades there was a phone service in Northern California that would read you the time and date if you dialed POP-CORN, the letters that represented 767-2676. That service went dark back in 2007, and Bay Curious listener George wants to know why.
The answer begins at the very origins of the telephone in 1876, when just two years after Alexander Graham Bell famously invented the technology, phone service went commercial. The telephone began to spread across the country; those earliest phones were connected by live operators who would manually connect your call.
Operators had access to something the average person didn't in those days: the correct time. "Starting in 1870, Western Union, the telegraph company, offered a nationwide, highly accurate time service, where they would install a clock in your business that was controlled centrally by their master clock in New York City and represented super accurate time for the day," explains Peter Amstein of the Telecommunications History Group.
You could find these accurate clocks in railroad stations and at the phone company. Watches and clocks weren't set automatically like they are today. You needed to start with the accurate time when setting and winding your watch, or clock, which would then maintain the correct time.
"It's impossible for us to know exactly when someone first called the operator to ask her what time it was," says Amstein, "but surely that happened in the very earliest days of the (phone) system."
Though never an official service, Amstein says, "The phone company wanted to be friendly and helpful. And certainly if the operators weren't too busy and had time, they would answer all sorts of questions for people," like the weather and the current, correct time.
In 1918, the Spanish flu spread across the country, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans.
"The phone company," says Amstein, "started putting notices in the newspapers telling people the operators would no longer answer questions like what time it was, because they needed them to concentrate fully on connecting people's phone calls."
But watches still didn't set themselves, so in the 1920s Amstein says some phone companies "began experimenting with a live time-of-day service," where a live operator would read the time to a revolving queue of callers at a set pace, multiple times a minute. You thought your job was monotonous? This needed to be automated.
"In 1934," says Amstein, "a gentleman named John Franklin from Atlanta, Georgia, had the brilliant idea to set up a phone number that people could call to hear the time that would be sponsored by Tick Tock Ginger Ale." To create his ad-supported call-in line, Franklin repurposed an existing piece of phone company technology called a drum recorder.
A drum recorder uses a cylindrical drum coated in magnetic tape to record messages like, "The number you have dialed is no longer in service." Franklin reprogrammed that machine to always play the current time, as read by an announcer. The company he created to sell that technology, Audichron, expanded into cities across the United States. The business model revolved around selling an ad, or the service and equipment themselves, to a sponsor. That advertiser could plug their company, and callers got the time and date.
Beginning in the 1960s, the voice of the time lady here in the Bay Area was that of Joanne Daniels. A resident of Atlanta, Georgia, to this day, Daniels recorded the familiar announcements in a single paid session in the 1950s. And though she was paid no royalties throughout the almost 60 years her recording was used, she was the Bay Area's POP-CORN lady until the very end.
In the service's heyday here in the Bay area, you could actually call POP + any four digits, something Amstein says was "a technical shortcut" for the phone company, then called the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company.
In 1984, the first cellphones became commercially available in the United States, and the road to shutdown began for Northern California's POP-CORN and similar services across the country. In 2007, Apple unveiled the first iPhone and Americans spent more money on cellphone service than landline service for the first time.
More cellphone users created demand for more unassigned phone numbers. Pacific Bell’s POP + four digits “shortcut” hogged a lot of potential new phone numbers that AT&T would need to meet that demand. So AT&T shut the service down in September 2007, securing 30,000 new numbers in Northern California alone.
There are a few, lesser-known time services still in operation all over the country. In fact, (415) POP-CORN will still get you the time and date in San Francisco, but it's not the time lady — Joanne Daniels is retired and living in Atlanta.
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