Facts That Figure: Alarm Clocks

Facts That Figure: Alarm Clocks

by C.G. Hoffman

We all have a tiny little item in our lives that we absolutely hate but cannot live without: alarm clocks. Few things will make us as angry as that annoying little device, but without it, how would we get up in the morning?

For centuries, man would rise with the sun, and go to sleep when the sun would set. But as civilization grew more sophisticated, people needed a way to wake them up at specific times. How was that possible without technology? Native Americans had a trick that was brilliant in its simplicity: Drink a lot of water before going to bed!

The clepsydra was a water clock used in ancient Greece. A complicated mechanism of gears dispensed specific amounts of water into vessels marked with the hours. It turned into an alarm clock when a floating piece of metal would clang against the surface of its bowl when it was emptied of its water.

The sundial is an ancient form of timekeeping still in use today. A long rod would note the time according to the shadow it made in the opposite direction of the sun. This worked for sunny climates, but in the more Northerly areas of Western Europe, it didn’t work very well at all. Monasteries needed a more accurate way of telling time in order to denote the time for prayers, and soon, every village and town had a clock tower with bells that would ring on the hour.

How did Yidden wake up early for davening or for Selichos? Many towns employed a “vekker” or a “shul klapper.” This was a fellow equipped with a long stick who would knock on the shutters of the house in order to wake people up. Now, how did the “vekker” wake up? Ah, that is still a mystery… During the Industrial Revolution, factories would employ a “knocker-upper” to bang on the shutters of factory workers to ensure they woke up on time for their daily grind. Laborers would also be awakened by the factory whistle, which was determined according to when the workday started.

The first known mechanical alarm clock was invented by Levi Hutchins of New Hampshire. He never intended to produce it commercially, so it was set to ring at the time that he wanted to wake up every morning: 4 a.m.! Luckily, others soon followed and improved on his design, so the world doesn’t have to wake up at 4 a.m. too!

The first patented alarm clock that could be programmed for specific times was invented in France, in 1847. A series of holes marking the hours were laid out on the clock. A pin was placed in the hole, marking the hour you wanted to be awakened. If you wanted to be more specific than the hour, hmmm, too bad. You had to wait another few decades until…

In 1876, American Seth E. Thomas produced his own version of the mechanical alarm clock, and his company was the first one to mass-produce alarm clocks. By the 1920s, alarm clock use was widespread, with manufacturers producing alarm clocks that were smaller and more portable.

During WWII, metal was scarce, but people still had to wake up in time. Clocks were made from a variety of materials, including pulped paper, which was like a glorified egg carton.

When did the snooze button enter the world?

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