Time and Memory author Vanessa Berry talks to Joyce Thomson about reading the time live over the telephone.
At the art deco Paragon Café in Katoomba, I sit across from Joyce Thomson. The Paragon is a place Joyce knows well: this was the place she took her first job, as a teenager in the early 1940s, helping with odd jobs. ‘I feel at home here,’ she says warmly, looking around the café’s elegant, wood-panelled interior. I’ve come to meet Joyce to talk about another of her former jobs, this one at the Sydney General Post Office (GPO) in the early 1950s. It was something of an unusual occupation: reading the time live over the telephone.
While I was researching my essay ‘Time Machines’, written for the Museum’s new book Time and Memory (May 2018), there was one detail that particularly captured my imagination. Before the introduction of the mechanical ‘speaking clock’, which is in the Museum’s collection, women read out the time live from the telephone switchboard centre at the GPO. I was curious to find out how it must have felt to be the intermediary between the constant tick of the clock and the caller, anxious to finish work, or wanting to set their watch correctly.
Joyce remembers her excitement at moving to Sydney in the early 1950s. She and her friend Betty made the move together, away from the small township of Katoomba to the big, bustling city. After settling in to the rented room they were sharing in the city’s inner west, the friends set out together to find jobs. After a short stint of work at a textiles factory, Joyce and Betty soon found themselves working as switchboard operators at the GPO. ‘It was a real eye opener for us country girls,’ Joyce says. They had worked previously at the Katoomba telephone exchange, but the Sydney exchange was huge by comparison, with around 750 telephonists employed in total.
Since the inception of telephone exchanges in the 1880s switchboards had been primarily operated by women, as they were regarded as more efficient and polite in the role. In the early 1950s the job was advertised for unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 25 who, after passing an examination of arithmetic and spelling, would be trained in operating the switchboard and in the standard phrases to use when putting calls through. Joyce still has her ‘Local Call Operating Instructions’ book, which provides instructions on how to ‘give courteous and willing assistance’ to subscribers, and address situations from wrong numbers to bushfire warnings.
After a period of working on the general exchange, one day Joyce felt a tap on her shoulder. ‘The supervisor said, “I’ve been observing you: you have a good speaking voice and you don’t hesitate. We have been thinking of putting you on overseas.”’ After this, Joyce was moved to the international calls, and recalls the thrill of putting a call through, and hearing ‘Hello, London’ on the line, as the switchboard operator on the other side of the world answered.
Soon Joyce was to have the supervisor tap her on the shoulder once again. She was summoned upstairs to meet with her supervisor. ‘I thought: what have I done!’ Joyce laughs. To her surprise, the supervisor asked: ‘Would you be interested in time?’ and explained how the time was read live by a select group of telephonists. This was how Joyce came to spend her days as part of the group of women who read the time live. She would sit in a soundproof cubicle, in front of a clock, and announce the time every seven seconds. Red and green lights on the console in front of her guided her when to speak and when to pause. ‘You had to remember to pace your breathing,’ Joyce said, when I asked if it was a difficult task, ‘but you took everything in your stride’.
Reading the time required intense concentration, and each woman only read for a short time before being relieved. To ensure there was no disruption, the women had to make seamless changes. Joyce explains how the changeover was choreographed: ‘We’d go up to the person sitting there and tap them on the left shoulder. When you left the chair, you’d put your right foot out and get ready to stand up. Then as you did the right leg of the other person was ready to go over to sit down, so it was a split-second change.’
The work required calm and the ability to work in an enclosed space without becoming claustrophobic, a part of the job that made it difficult for some. The relentless time calls could also be exhausting. As you reached the end of your session, Joyce said, ‘Your brain was going round and round. But you weren’t in there for long. They were very considerate. You did a certain amount and then you sat out, and someone else took over.’
The time was transmitted with live readers in this way until 1954, when a ‘speaking clock’ was imported from England. It replaced the team of around 20 telephonists who read the time live. By now Joyce had moved back to Katoomba and was working at the local telephone exchange. A few years earlier, she had been obliged to leave her job as she was getting married, and married women were prohibited from working in the public service. But a few years later, raising two children alone, she received a special dispensation to return, and continued to work at the Katoomba exchange until 1970.
As we sit together in the Paragon, Joyce repeats some of the phrases she spoke so many times while working at the exchange: ‘Number please?’, ‘Are you getting through?’ and for public phones: ‘Please insert two pennies separately’. The instruction to do it separately, she laughs, was often ignored by the eager caller. Hearing her repeat these phrases I imagine I am hearing her voice at the end of a telephone line. It is Sydney, 1951, and I have called BO74, to hear Joyce calmly reading from the clock in front of her, her voice keeping pace with time.
This piece published in the 2018 Winter issue of MAAS Magazine. Vanessa Berry’s ‘Time Machines’ appears in the MAAS publication Time and Memory, an exploration of the many ways in which the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection reflects upon the concept of time, published in October 2018. Purchase Time and Memory online, or from MAAS Store and selected bookstores.