The NRC Gazing Ball

The NRC Gazing Ball

A very early memory for me involved a trip with my father to McDonalds on Montreal Road in Ottawa.  I was quite a daring 4 year old, devouring those delicious little burgers without much concern about the onions and mustard and pickles.

The real reason I liked that McDonalds was it was near my dad’s work, which in turn was near a building with beautiful grounds and a huge magical metal ball (pictured above).  I asked my father what that place was, and he replied with Cypriot directness “That’s NRC!  I sometimes work with those guys.”

That was the beginning of my fascination with NRC (The National Research Council).  If these people could build a marble that size, surely they could perform any miracle! I loved driving by that place.  I thought about living in the ball. The ball and the concept of mystic, wizard-like scientists working 24 hours a day made me dream of NRC Montreal Road frequently. My recurring dream featured me breaking into the place (remember I was 4), setting off the alarm, and scientists would look around murmuringly for me, but never find me because I took their invisibility formula.

A year later, my brother told me about a phone number I will never forget:  745-1576 (if you want to dial it from outside Ottawa it’s +1 613 745 1576). It was Canada’s first and foremost telephone clock. Here is a sample.  Notice the beauty of the clock’s ticks synchronized with the audio player’s countdown.

What is so special about this clock? (In other words, what did I think was special about the clock back then?)

  1. A robotic voice that sounds like a scientist’s voice is looking at a clock in the NRC building and reading out the time 6 times a minute, 360 times an hour.  For you.
  2. The clock is ATOMIC! Only through nuclear power can a clock be this accurate.  It’s tuned tightly.  If it were any more accurate, it might EXPLODE.
  3. Before PCs and PC synchronisation became the norm, this was the only way you could be assured of proper watch synchronisation; and it was the only way of really understanding how good your wristwatch was over time.  “My watch only lost 3 seconds in a month”
  4. I felt like the king of the world when I called on December 31, 1979 at 23:59:40 and didn’t get a busy signal
  5. If challenged by my friends to call a girl I liked, I could pretend I was dialling the girl’s number, but instead I would dial the NRC Eastern Time dude.  Needless to say he was embarrassed but stoic about the charade.

My brand point today is that Canada’s NRC is sitting on a goldmine of brand potential. Long before Lost’s Dharma Initiative made outlandish 1970’s research projects cool, NRC put a 5-ton metal marble in front of their main building and put me in touch with the wonder of time, and an appreciation for accuracy.

I’ll try to find the Canadian Government’s marketing people and ask them why they’ve never tried to actively communicate the mythology of the NRC ball and clock to Canadians and the world.

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