No time to read about it? Head here to have a listen.

This project made the news in Australia.

For my whole life (and for decades prior to that) people in Australia have been able to dial 1194 to hear George the talking clock read out the current time: “At the third stroke, it will be one twenty-three and forty seconds,” followed by the three iconic strokes, or – let’s call them what they really are – beeps.

The service had become less essential since the invention of the smartphone and its facility to automatically set its own time, but George still received millions of calls per year. Let’s face it: still not everyone uses a mobile phone, and plenty of people don’t use one as a clock. George was still the time for some people. Most of the calls were received around the start and end of Daylight Saving. A robotic voice telling you with certainty what time it really is can be very comforting when you can’t remember if you’re supposed to ‘lose’ or ‘gain’ an hour, and whether that means your clock should go ‘forward’ or ‘back’, and what that actually means in practise. There was also that one year when people had become pretty reliant on their phones as an alarm clock, but for some reason iPhones didn’t get the daylight savings change right. I was staying at a hotel in Brisbane at the time. Most of the staff didn’t show up for work. It was chaos.

Personally, I still called George in 2019. If I was in bed, didn’t know what time it was, and could reach the landline phone, I’d call George because it was easier than getting up and finding my phone. George was also my preferred method of setting my watch to the right time.

The original machine (which took up a whole room) was in service from 1953 until 1990, when it was replaced with a digital system, which survived until 2019. But on Monday 30th September I heard the news: they were shutting down the service due to ‘incompatibilities’ with upcoming network upgrades. With only a few hours to go until midnight, I knew what I had to do. I had to save George. I had to rebuild him in JavaScript so we could still hear his voice any time we wanted. Any time of day could be constructed if I had a recording of George reading all of the numbers, and I figured he would use all of those numbers in the last few hours of the service. So I acted fast. I plugged a nearby mono 3.5mm cable into my iPhone SE’s headphone jack, plugged that into one of the inputs on my RME interface, opened Ableton Live, hit record, and called George.

I got the busy signal. Dozens of times. It seemed George was getting pretty popular in the last few hours of service. After getting through, I soon found out that George hangs up on you after a minute or so. I guess I’d never called for that long before. So after quite a few calls over the next few hours, I gradually crossed off all the words I needed a recording of. I was worried at 11:12pm when I still didn’t have the numbers 13 or 14 yet, and I kept getting the busy signal, and that was my last chance. But I got it done. Let the record show that I called 1194 sixty-six times that night.

A few days later, I had some spare time in another hotel room, and put together the new online George. Head over to the site to have a listen. It was a fun exercise, assembling the sentence based on the time. It uses your device’s time, and so shouldn’t be relied on for being an accurate time of day, but there are other ways to do that these days. All this project is for is to let us hear George again.