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  • Writer's pictureLeon de Leeuw

A tale about the alarm clocks in our lives

We might not often think of it, but the way we are woken up has significantly changed over the years. I’m talking about the alarm clock, our often strongly disliked friend that wakes us up to a new day. They ring one after another, through billions of homes as the earliest sunbeams reach the face of the earth. Each bedroom has one of some sort. And although waking up early is not always pleasant, the alarm clocks provide a reliable service day in and day out.

Remarkably, the alarm clock is one thing being universally replaced by mobile phones. This piece of technique waited silently on our nightstands until the second it woke us up. From the first days of school as a young kid, it tagged along many years until it woke us up at the day of our graduation speeches.

During days of dark clouds we would rather tuck in, the alarm clock allows us some mercy to doze off. We hit snooze and forget about it. It does not forget about us. A bit later, the same noise tells us to report for daily obligations. Some are lucky and are awoken with a pleasant song on the radio. It might wake us up on our wedding days, us waking up with joy and no remorse to the clock. Regardless, it’s with us. So it has long been, until the last days. Where most have been replaced.

I want to shine a light on the origin of the alarm clock. It’s said that Plato (428–348 BC) was woken up to prepare for his lectures by a water clock (1). The word for this clock is clepsydra, meaning water thief (2). You can see how it worked in this clip. Such an inventive device. Apart from waking up the philosophical legends in ancient Greece, such devices were used in Greek and Roman courts to announce the time a speaker had to make his plead (3). Rather interestingly, these clocks were also used to remind customers of the early Athenian brothels that their time was running out (4). Another often-cited inventor of the alarm clock, a striking model, is Buddhist monk Yi Xing (683–727) (5).

Levi Hutchins had invented the first mechanical alarm clock, helping him wake up at the crack of dawn. This model could not be set at any other time; 4am was its only setting (6). As Hutchins had not acquired a patent for this invention, the French Antoine Redier did so in 1847. The patent had not reached the US and in 1876, Seth E. Thomas (Seth Thomas Clock Company) patented his own version.

Again crossing the Atlantic, versions improved one after another. In 1931, the Westlox Chime Alarm was introduced with the slogan “First he whispers, then he shouts”.

The production of alarm clocks already had the conveyor belts spinning. The industrialization of the world led to a mentality shift: “Time is money”. Workers had to become more adapted to working with machines, thus having tighter schedules. Even though mechanical alarm clocks were growing in number and finding their way into many households, there were people waking up without them well into the Industrial Revolution. In Great Britain and Ireland, knocker-uppers received a few pence by pounding on windows and doors waking up residents, so they could still get to work on time (7), (8). This profession was well and alive until alarm clocks became more affordable for the general population. The knocker-uppers would not leave your window frame until they had been assured the person had woke up.

During the years, alarm clocks in all shapes and forms have had their place in our bedrooms. There are those that wake you up with a freshly brewed cup of coffee or there’s underwear that vibrates when it’s time to leave your comfy bed.

The slow disappearance of alarm clocks could be another typical symptom of how phones have become more involved in our daily lives, from early morning right until we turn off the lights. The UK carrier O2 held a survey, concluding that 52% of their users’ alarm clocks had bit the dust. In order to hear the noise of the alarm clock, the phone is often close to the bed if not in it. Studies prove the use of light-emitting devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep. They suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that tells us it’s time for bed. Now that there are phones with “night mode” on the market, shining less bright light upon our sleepy faces, we are truly in the middle of change. A revolution in behaviour we might even say. We are yet to see how the change in devices impacts our sleep/waking pattern. Nevertheless, it’s good to realize we are part of this change. And although we might not have noticed, it is a big change. How Plato woke up and how we did this morning, after all it’s not bad to rise with a gentle ring.

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(1) Humphrey, Oleson & Sherwood 2003, p. 522

(2) Goodenow, Orr & Ross (2007), p. 7

(3) Hill 1981, p. 6

(4) John G. Landels: "Water-Clocks and Time Measurement in Classical Antiquity", "Endeavour", Vol. 3, No. 1 (1979), pp. 32-37 (33) (5) Joseph Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, pp. 473–5 (6) Mary Bellis. "History of Clocks" (7) Leigh, Egderton; Roger Wilbraham (F. R. S.) (1877) (8) Macauley, James (1857). The Leisure Hour Vol VI. London. p. 312.

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