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At The Sound of the Gong

From The American Horologist and Jeweler magazine, October, 1946

At The Sound of the Gong
By Burton Sloane

Whether you dial MEridian 7-1212 in New York, or ULrich 8900 in Los Angeles, you get the same service. A charming voice (in New York) gives forth with "When you hear the signal, the time will be two-five and threequarters." In Los Angeles they call the signal "the tone." In still other communities, the melodious sound is called a "bong" a "gong" or a "chime," yet despite the terminology used, the phone companies' time service is the most accurate in the world.

Strangely enough, people on the West Coast are more interested in learning what the time is than their Eastern brethren; the Los Angeles phone company gets an average of 130,000 calls per day, while New York, with almost 4 times as many people, constantly throughout the entire day;
L. A. occasionally has stretches of several minutes, usually late at night, when people either don't care what the time is, or else would rather not know.

But no matter where YOU are when you call for the time, you don't have to ask for it, and even if you do you're not heard by anybody. As soon as you dial the correct number, you're automatically connected with the Time Bureau. In New York some 70 operators who have been trained to make these announcements (no records are ever used) work in thirty minute shifts. There are so many of these trained time-pleasers that it's almost never necessary for anyone operator to serve more than two shifts per day at the time announcement turret.

This turret is a dual unit with two super-accurate clocks, and the current set-up can handle up to 900 simultaneous requests. Only one of these clocks is used at a time; the other is an emergency reserve in case the first clock should suddenly call it quits. On the face of each time-piece is a time-indicator which records the time in 15 second steps, plus three lights. One light is red, one is green, and the third is white.

The Rube Goldbergish inventors who devised this fancy machine arranged it so that a low tone and the green light give forth with the notices every 15 seconds; this warns the operator to begin her spiel- "When you hear the signal, the time will be..." And then, at exactly the time announced, a "bong" is heard and you know what time it is.

But the mad genii responsible for the time-turret wanted no wasted effort, so the machine is fixed to give no notice to the operator unless one or more customers are breathlessly awaiting the exact time. That's where the white light comes in. No subscribers, no white light; no white light, no announcement. The red light, of course, is to warn the operator that one of the clocks is out of order, so that she can immediately switch to the alternate set.

In Los Angeles, the system is almost identical, except that there the girl has four clocks in front of her. The girls at the phone company like to tell about the beauty who got cross-eyed trying to look at all four of the time-pieces at once. Furthermore, on the West Coast, the girls, who work full one-hour shifts, are Information Operators eager for the chance to change from looking up the number of Peter Illyitch Tsohossenfeffer who lives in Kroosemite.

But the most remarkable thing about the time service is its accuracy. The New York time indicators' are driven by an alternating current of regulated frequency, each clock having its own circuit. Somewhere along the line, it seems that the current itself is regulated by a "crystal clock" which depends on thin wafers of quartz; When inserted in a suitable circuit, the Bell Telephone people claim that the crystals will control the rate of electrical vibrations to an accuracy of one part in a million. Four of these crystals, locked in a "time vault" at the Bell Laboratories, have been independently operated and checking each other continuously for more than ten years. 

So popular have the various time services throughout the country become, that advertisers are beginning to cut in on the territory. Soon you will not only get the sound of the gong, you'll also learn where you can buy it good watch. 


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