BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!! BRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIINNNNGGGG!!
“…and the time now is 7:00am, on your local breakfast-radio program. Coming up next, the traffic heading into the city from the east is backed up for ten blocks because of an overturned truck transporting strawberry yogurt. Police say they’re in the midst of a very sticky situation…”
Every morning around the world, people are jolted, jostled, jerked and jumped out of bed by sounds that vary from air-raid sirens to simulated roosters, electronic beeping to breakfast radio, to the sound of Grieg’s ‘Morning Mood’ from the Peer Gynt Suite:
In the 21st Century, we have all sorts of ways to wake us up in the morning, from jangling bells to novelty sirens to our favourite musical tracks. If you search hard enough, you’ll even find an alarm-clock voiced by Stephen Fry in his famous portrayal of Reginald Jeeves.
Who wouldn’t want to be woken up in the morning by their own personal English valet?
The alarm-clock, in all its various permutations, has been around for about three hundred years. When, where, why and how did the alarm-clock come from, and how did it develop over the centuries? Let’s find out…
Before the Alarm-Clock
As much as we don’t like it, sometimes it is necessary to wake up earlier than we’d want to. But how to do this in the days before alarm-clocks were invented?
If early man wanted to wake up…early…then one simple method was just to drink. Drinking lots of water before bed will certainly get you up early so that you can go take a leak! Or, simply sleep where natural sunlight will wake you up with its own brightness. Some people relied on roosters, which would crow every morning at sun-up. These were among the methods used by ancient and medieval peoples, in order to wake up as early as possible, to make the most use of daylight with which to get tasks done. Candles and oil for lamps was expensive, and so were used as sparingly as possible.
For most people, knowing the actual ‘time’ was never necessary. Few people needed to know what the time was – they just needed the light to do their work. But as the world became more developed and more advanced, and clocks became better, more people started having clocks in their homes.
Early clocks were notoriously inaccurate. Even the best ones would be out by minutes a day, and hours a week, requiring frequent resetting. People relied on church-bells and large public clocks to wake them up, or tell them what the time was, since household clocks were rarely accurate, and were often expensive! Even pendulum clocks were not especially accurate – changing summer and winter temperatures affects the length of the pendulum (due to expanding and contracting metal), and therefore, also affects its accuracy.
For people living in town, who had to wake up early (for factory-jobs, for example), there was one main of doing this, if you didn’t have an alarm-clock (or if one had not yet been invented), and that was to employ a knocker-up.
A knocker-up/knocker-upper, was a man employed by a factory or company, to go around the streets before sunrise, and knock on people’s front doors or their bedroom windows, to wake them up each morning for work. Since some knocker-ups might do double-duty as lamplighters, they would beat their lamplighting-staffs against the windows to wake people up, as they did their rounds, extinguishing streetlamps as they went along.
In Tony Robinson’s TV series “The Worst Jobs in History“, he declared that being a knocker-up was a lousy job because there was nobody around to wake him up, to make sure that he woke everyone else up!
The First Alarm-Clocks
The first ‘alarm-clocks’ of a sort, have existed since ancient times. These were often large, public clocks, with mechanisms built in, to sound bells at specific times (for example, for monks, when they needed to pray). Most people still relied on the bells attached to large public clock-towers, or church bell-towers. Few people had need for anything more specific or accurate than that. The first real attempts at making an alarm-clock as we might know it today, did not show up until the 1700s.
The Industrial Revolution of the Georgian Era meant that people now had new work-patterns. You weren’t regulated by the sun, to work in the field. You were regulated by the clock, to work in a factory or workshop. And it now became necessary to wake up at a specific time each day.
The first alarm-clock produced during the early Industrial Revolution was built by Levi Hutchins, a man living in the newly-independent United States, in 1787. Hutchins built the clock to wake him up at 4:00am for his job, but the design was never patented, or mass-produced. It would be nearly another 100 years, before the first really modern alarm-clock was produced.
The Modern Alarm Clock
The first modern alarm-clock, one which an individual could own, which would both tell time, and set off an alarm which could be adjusted to any time at all, was not invented until the 1870s.
The pioneer was the Seth E. Thomas Clock Company, founded by Seth Thomas in 1813. Although Thomas himself died in 1859, the company bearing his name produced the first practical, mass-produced alarm-clock in 1876. This mechanical, hand-wound clock had an alarm-mechanism that could be set to any time. The first truly modern alarm-clock had arrived!
Exactly when this specific style of clock came out is anyone’s guess, but it’s been around for at least 100 years, sometime probably between the 1880s-1900s. It has been manufactured by Westclox since at least the 1920s. For most people, when they imagine an alarm-clock, they picture the classic twin-bell timepiece with two keys, and two knobs, two bells, two feet, and two hands.
The classic double-bell alarm-clock has a mainspring for the time-mechanism, and a bell-spring, for the alarm. They also featured a dial at the top for the user to set the alarm to ring at whatever time they chose. These clocks ran on 36-hour springs, and had to be wound each morning (or evening). The bell-springs generally had to be wound up every two or three days, depending on how deep the sleeper happened to be!
Clocks like this came with one, or two bells on top. Or sometimes, with no bells at all!
The Westclox “Big Ben” is one of the longest-lasting alarm-clock designs in the world. It came out in the early 1900s, and didn’t cease production until well into the 1960s and 70s. Its claim to fame was its neat appearance – It was easy to read, easy to operate, and without any external bells for dust to gather underneath.
Westclox Big Bens were among the first to use the patented “Bell-Back”-style of clock-case. Here, the bell-gong was actually built into the back of the clock-case, and a hammer simply struck the inside of the clock-case to sound the alarm.
Depending on the model, Big Bens came with a simple “on-off” alarm-switch, or with an additional repeater-switch, where the alarm would ring for a few seconds…stop…then ring for a few seconds…and stop…and ring for a few seconds…and stop again. Until the spring had run down. Probably the earliest ‘snooze’ function in the world!
Clocks During the War
The Second World War is almost over! Slowly, we can take things ‘off-ration’ and enjoy them as we did before the outbreak in 1939! What’s the first thing to be enjoyed en-masse once more? Chocolate? Condoms? French champagne?
In Britain and America during WWII, clock-companies ceased production from 1942-1945. They produced airplane parts and other important components for the war-effort. But by the end of the War, there was a surprisingly high demand for alarm-clocks! Especially in England where many homes had been bombed out, reliable, functional alarm-clocks had become rare, due to them breaking down and not being easily replaced, or being damaged in bombing-raids and not being able to be recovered or repaired.
In the United States, clockmakers couldn’t repair customers’ clocks, due to the lack of steel and brass for replacement parts (which were used for weapons and bullets in the war). The result was that more and more people missed their work-shifts, which were vital for keeping the Allies going during the War.
This appalling lack of alarm-clocks and the production-time for war-materials lost as a result, meant that alarm-clocks were one of the first things to come ‘off-ration’ in the closing months of the war. In America, the Office of Price-Administration (the OPA), a body set up to regulate prices of civilian products during the war (to prevent outrageous price-hikes by war-profiteers), allowed clock-companies to resume manufacture of civilian alarm-clocks as early as late 1944. However, Westclox produced cheap ‘Waralarm’ clocks from 1943-1944, to replace all those which had worn out during the War. Due to the severe materials-rationing, the brass and steel used to make these clocks was almost non-existent. As a result…
“…In this model the [War Production Board] specifies the use of but 7 pounds of brass for every 1000 clocks, whereas in normal production we use 300 pounds for every 1000 clocks. We have found suitable substitutes for the restricted metals.
Despite the difficulties, we believe the clock is pleasing in appearance, and will be readily acceptable by the buying public.
It has a case of moulded wood fibre, which will be lacquered. It stands 5 5/8 inches high, and is 5 1/4 inches wide, with a large, easy to read dial. It has a bell alarm, but plans call for the eventual use of a buzzer…”
– Westclox ‘Tick-Talk’ magazine, 1943.
The clock-radio has been a popular item on peoples’ bedside tables for decades. A way to wake up to something other than the harsh buzzing, beeping or jangling that accompanies ordinary alarms. A civilised way to wake up, to your favourite radio station, with music, or news, or early-morning talk-back.
Exactly who invented the combination of the clock-radio, and even when it was invented, appears to have been lost to history. There are conflicting reports about exactly when, and by whom, this wonderful and fascinating device was created. Its date of creation varies, from the late 1920s, up to the late 1940s. The company or person that came up with the idea is equally obscure. All indications are that first rudimentary alarm-clock radios came out in the 1930s, and slowly developed from there.
The Digital Alarm-Clock
The postwar era, the ‘Long Boom’ of the 1950s, saw design embracing new technologies and materials. No more metal, no more spring-wound mechanical clocks – Now people wanted stuff made of plastic!
Plastic before the War had been in its infancy. It was used for certain products like telephones, fountain pens, and various desk-accessories, but was in general, still a wonder-material held in-awe by most manufacturers. Metal-shortages during the War forced companies to experiment and try new materials. And in the mid-1950s, the first electronic digital clock appeared.
I say the first ELECTRONIC digital clock.
Digital clocks have been around for ages.
We must understand this. Digital clocks are not new. They have been around for well over a hundred years. The word ‘digital’ has nothing to do with electricity, but everything to do with display.
A digital clock is a clock which displays time purely through numerical arrangements, and without the aid of hands or pointers. Like “09:45”.
Such clocks (and even watches) have been around since at least the Victorian era. But analogue clocks just remained more popular. One of the first serious digital clocks of the modern era is the famous ‘flip-clock’, which has white numerals on a black background of metal (later, plastic) leaves, which flip and drop along a horizontal axis, to display the time. Developed in Italy in the late 1940s, this simple, easily-read, and much less-cluttered design made it popular and more straight-forward than a conventional analogue dial-clock of the era.
The lawyer in the court-room,
In the middle of an alimony plea,
Has gotta stop and help ’em pour,
When the clock strikes four!
Everything stops for tea…
Yes indeed. One of the more interesting alarm-clocks that you could possibly find is the ‘Teasmade‘. Existing in one form or another since Victorian times, this device is typically a combination alarm-clock and automatic kettle and teapot all in one. Originally a crude, mechanical, clockwork-operated device starting in the 1890s, it took off in the early 20th century and by the 1930s, the first mass-produced ‘Teesmades‘, as they were originally spelt, came onto the market, starting in 1933.
The Teasmade became incredibly popular in the postwar era during the 1970s and 80s. It died off somewhat around the turn of the century, but is steadily being revived, and today, you can still buy brand-new teasmades, online, or at retail shops in the U.K.
Electrical and Quartz Clocks
Electromagnetic clocks have existed since the 1840s, but for a long time, these were restricted to large clocks found in public buildings, as they were often too expensive for private use. The same applied for quartz clocks, which use the regular pulses generated by a quartz-crystal (when electricity is passed through it) to keep time.
Developed in the late 1920s, quartz clocks (and by extension, quartz alarm-clocks) would not become practical and cheap until the 1970s and 80s. Before then, most people relied on mechanical alarm-clocks to continue waking them up each day.
Alarm-Clocks in the 21st Century
These days, everything has an alarm-clock on it, from your mobile-phone to your laptop computer. But alarm-clocks still grace the bedside tables of millions of people around the world. Traditional, spring-driven mechanical clocks are still produced, and can be purchased cheaply and easily online. They follow a basic and classic design that hasn’t changed in over a century.
But for people looking for something with a bit more umph, there’s everything from flying alarm-clocks, exploding alarm-clocks, alarm-clocks that play air-raid sirens, and even Ticky, Tocky and Clocky, three different types of wandering alarm-clocks, that will literally roll off the end of your bedside table and roll around on the floor, beeping incessantly, forcing you to get up and chase it around to turn off the alarm.