Time’s up for France’s historic ‘speaking clock’

For nearly 90 years, anyone in France needing to know what time it is down-to-the-second could ring up the Paris Observatory and get an automated, astronomy-based response.

Time's up for France's historic 'speaking clock'
Paris observatory during the speaking clock's 80 anniversary. (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

But the final countdown for the world-first service has begun.

Nostalgia fans hoping to dial 3699 and get the soothing voice of France’s “speaking clock” will have to move fast because telecoms operator Orange is pulling the plug on July 1.

“When I was a kid my mom never stopped asking me to use the speaking clock,” recalled Claire Salpetrier, an English teacher in Magnanville, west of the capital.

It all started when in 1933, the astronomer and Paris Observatory director Ernest Esclangon, got fed up with people clogging up the centre’s only phone line to ask the official time — an essential service in the days of mechanical clocks.

So he developed a concept that would later be adopted worldwide, incorporating the latest technologies as the decades went by.

Orange, the former state telecom monopoly, said the Observatory got several millions of calls in 1991, when dedicated infrastructure was set up to provide times accurate to the 10th millisecond.

“The utility was pretty strong back then, but bit by bit we started seeing an erosion,” Orange’s marketing director Catherine Breton told AFP.

“There were just a few tens of thousands of calls in 2021.”

Hearing the famous “At the fourth beep, the time will be…” in alternating men’s and women’s voices last stood at 1.50 euros a pop ($1.58), which may also have proved dissuasive in the era of smartphones.

‘Sad and nostalgic’

“I was surprised it still existed. It’s something we knew about as kids, when we didn’t yet have cell phones,” said Antonio Garcia, a health clinic director in Meulan-en-Yvelines, outside Paris.

“It was super handy when you needed to take a train or a plane — I can still remember the ‘beep, beep, beep’,” he said.

The current version is the fourth generation of the service and is calculated from Coordinated Universal Time in a temperature-controlled room by the Time-Space Reference Services lab (SYRTE) housed at the Observatory.

Much of the equipment needed to keep it up and running needs replacing, an investment that doesn’t appear to be worth the effort.

Media relations specialist Charlotte Vanpeen said she used to use it “when the power went out and you needed to reset the time on everything”.

“Hearing about its end makes me sad and nostalgic,” she said.

“Kids these days have all these technologies and don’t know about what we had. The good things are being forgotten.”

For Michel Abgrall, the research engineer in charge of keeping the speaking clock running, its demise is “a bit emotional.”

“It’s part of our cultural heritage,” he said.

But for those worried about knowing the precise time, Abgrall says don’t fret: It features prominently on the Observatory’s home page.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Save the Kévins’ – French film aims to rehabilitate the much-mocked name

Did you know that people named Kevin are regarded as a bit of a laughing stock in France? One French Kevin is fed up with negative clichés surrounding his name, and is making a documentary to try and change people's minds.

'Save the Kévins' - French film aims to rehabilitate the much-mocked name

In 1991, France saw one name top the charts for baby boys: Kevin (or sometimes Kévin). That year, at least 14,087 Kévins were born. In the 1990s, the cultural zeitgeist was filled with Kevins, from the lead character in Home Alone to movie stars like Kevin Costner or Kevin Bacon.

The American sounding first name has unfortunately not been met with widespread love and appreciation in France, as elites looked down upon the name and it rapidly fell out of favour. Since then, many of France’s Kévins have had to endure mockery and judgement for having what many view as a ‘trashy‘ name. 

The clichés about the name ‘Kévin’ even inspired a not-so-kind phrase, “Faire son Kévin,” used to describe someone who is immature or childish. 

READ MORE: French phrase of the day: Faire son Kévin

Now most of these French Kévins are in their thirties, and the name has fallen out of popularity in large part due to the negative clichés surrounding it. But one Kévin is seeking to take on the stereotypes. 

His name is Kevin Fafournoux, and his project is a documentary titled “Sauvons les Kevin” (Save the Kevins). He wants to ‘rehabilitate’ the popular 90s name by shooting a documentary “about Kevin, for Kevin, by Kevin.” By trade a graphic designer, Fafournoux has been financing the film via crowdfunding. You can watch the trailer HERE

According to The Guardian, the film will also look into the origins of the name Kevin, “from its roots in Ireland to its connotations in Germany, where the term “Kevinism” is sometimes used as shorthand for giving your child an exotic name that might mark out their social class or hamper their future.”

Regarding the socio-economic status of the name in France, Baptiste Coulmont, professor of sociology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, told Radio France: “Kevin is a name that was born in the working classes, and died there as well. It was rarely given to [children of] executives or Parisian elites”.

It is also those groups who have been most likely to mock the name, according to the professor, who explained that negative stereotypes about ‘les Kévin’ often come from “the intellectual bourgeoisie who found that this name embodied bad taste.”

Fafournoux told Radio France he has received over 200 testimonies from other Kévins about their experiences with the name, many being lumped in with reality TV and other markers related to class.

“Employers don’t take them seriously during interviews or when dating girls, there is sometimes a prejudice when you have this name,” he said.

READ MORE: We need to talk about Kévin: Why France fell in (and out of) love with a name

With his documentary, he hopes to change people’s mentalities. “The idea is to show that you can hold positions of responsibility, succeed in your professional life, and do well in your studies while still being called Kevin,” said the filmmaker.

Filming is set to begin in a few months.