The first phone number I learned was my grandparents’ landline. The second was time and temperature.
After I’d annoyed Grandma thoroughly, someone taught me (352) 629-1212 — one of only three phone numbers I still know offhand. It was mind-blowing and mysterious to 6-year-old me, this robot voice with all the info that lived in the analog lines.
Somehow, it still kind of is.
Time and temperature phone lines receive more than a million calls each month from across the U.S. That includes thousands of calls to three recently restored lines in Tampa Bay.
With smartphones and their precise atomic clocks and weather apps, why would anyone dial a number for such basic facts?
John Lochridge of Memory Lane Communications says the question misses the point.
“What’s the fun,” Lochridge said, “in just getting it off your phone screen?”
Most of those lines would likely have faded away altogether if not for a small handful of devotees like him. Many were already dead. The dusty, Nixon-era equipment that automated them failed in the back rooms of banks and newspapers a decade ago with no one willing to maintain it.
When Lochridge learned the line he’d grown up calling in Dallas was shutting down in 2011, the telecommunications engineer spent two years figuring out how to bring it back himself. The response was so positive that he’s been on a gleeful quest to resurrect defunct time and temperature lines across the U.S. ever since.
He now owns hundreds of lines and counting — from cities like New York and Chicago to Arctic Circle outposts like Deadhorse, Alaska, with a population of around 50.
Some folks will read this and get a nostalgic kick out of dialing anew the lines that had gone dead by the mid-2010s: (813) 622-1212 (Tampa), (727) 894-6666 (St. Petersburg) or (727) 447-6611 (Clearwater). Others already know those lines are working again because they never stopped trying to call.
I never did.
Time and temperature, for me, was the start of a long fascination with the phone. In middle school I’d hang out at a corner store pay phone dialing random 800 numbers and collect-calling friends. I browsed the phone book on the couch, chatted up operators and pulled houseguests into marathon crank call sessions. I kept a list of citywide pay phone numbers. A phone near the restrooms at the mall was a favorite for testing the strangers that answered: I’m in the last stall, out of paper. Can you help?
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The pranks weren’t about sowing chaos as much as they were a way to get an auditory glimpse into forbidden bars and unknown pizza kitchens and strangers’ living rooms. Just as my habit of calling time and temperature four times a day — an ancestor to compulsively opening Twitter — probably wasn’t about the weather.
I called my hometown time and temperature line into adulthood, long after I moved away. It’s a great way to test your signal or pretend you’re on the phone if you want to avoid someone. It finally stopped working a few years ago, as I’d expected. But now and then I tried it, just in case.
About a year ago, it was suddenly back.
Seeking the source of this small miracle, I connected with RTI Media founder Bruce Robertson. The former radio announcer provides the distinguished voice callers hear today. Today is Friday, April 8, the current time 11:04 a.m. and the temperature 63 degrees.
He also sells the tech that makes modern time and temperature lines like Lochridge’s work. I told him how I’d never completely stopped calling. He said that’s common.
He described a client who’d taken control of an old line in Kentucky. The guy plugged it in but made no announcement that it was back.
“In the first week he got 14,000 calls,” Robertson said. “That means the people had been calling for months, even when the service was gone. It’s a habit-based thing.”
There’s a thin line between habit and ritual. And there’s comfort in finding that a system that was always there has continued on. Right where you left it. Dutiful, even if no one needs it.
And of course it’s a bit of cheap nostalgia. I can’t deny that telephones — if you can imagine it — used to be fun. For instance, a classmate turned me on to a supposedly haunted “doppelganger number,” where everything I said took on an eerie echo. (I later learned these were used by phone companies to test call quality.) It’s why I still take photos of pay phones today.
My fascination must have been akin to what fueled the “phone phreaks,” the pre-internet hackers who made the telecom system their playground. Steve Wozniak has said that if he hadn’t started phreaking with his pal Steve Jobs in 1971 that Apple wouldn’t exist.
Wozniak was inspired by legendary phreak Josef Engressia, a blind student at the University of South Florida who, possessing perfect pitch, could whistle tones into a pay phone at 2,600 hertz to unlock free long-distance calls. (Engressia, later known as “Joybubbles,” charged $1 for his services.) In Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley writes that Engressia’s obsession started at age 4, when his mother taught him to dial time and temperature.
By 1985 — after six decades of time and temperature lines, and an evolution from live operators to automated ads — the Tampa Tribune wrote that Tampa’s line received 2 million calls monthly. St. Petersburg’s received 800,000 and Clearwater 500,000.
Lochridge operates dozens of other lines in Florida, including Orlando, Daytona and Ocala — the standby of my childhood. There are still a few independents, too. Publix, for instance, still operates (863) 688-8118 for Lakeland. The U.S. Naval Observatory gets about 2.5 million calls per year to its atomic clock line at (202) 762-1069.
Lochridge said he spends hours poring over the comments people post after learning time and temp is back in their city.
The lonely stories stick with him — the woman who called often when she was hospitalized to keep grounded with reality; the guy who worked at a desolate store in Death Valley and dialed long-distance just to hear a human voice.
“This is kind of sad, but a lot of people call us because they don’t have anyone else to call,” he said. “It’s meaningful to a lot of people. Something that was there for them in happy times and sad times. ... To have something from your childhood that’s still around in this world that is quickly changing, it’s special.”
Lochridge quotes a lyric by the Old 97′s: “Well, a box of red and a pill or three. And I’m calling time and temperature just for some company...”
One female caller told him, “It’s a little slice of Mayberry.”
The phone lines normally get a big boost twice a year when the time changes — “that’s like the Super Bowl for time and temperature” — but Lochridge thinks the business will survive a possible coming change to permanent daylight saving time. The lines long ago outlived their utility, he said, but not the “magic.”
And maybe the magic is this: We all remember a number from our childhood. There’s a good chance it doesn’t work anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. But what if you dialed it and the past answered?
More unusual phone numbers to try
If time and temperature has you in the mood for more automated phone lines, here are some weird, funny — even creepy — phone numbers to call.
Jenny’s answering machine, (919) 867-5309
Hall and Oates emergency help line, (719) 26-OATES (719-266-2837)
Please deposit coins, (509) 457-0044
Elvis at the phone company, (718) 238-9901
Harvard sentences, (858) 651-5050
“Doppelganger number” test line, (909) 390-0003
Dial A Poem, (514) 558-8649
Scary stories, 1-877-77-CREEP
A Guide to the Echo River for Drifters and Pilgrims, (270) 301-5797
Shadytel’s voice BBS, (813) 469-5930
Murray Bauman of Stranger Things, (618) 625-8313
Phone Losers of America, (505) 608-6123
Wrinkles the Clown, (407) 734-0254
Saul Goodman, attorney, (505) 503-4455
Scary noises, (508) 690-6143
Dial a Rick Roll, (248) 434-5508