On any given weekday morning, the incessant ringing of a bedside alarm clock is greeted around the world by a hand crashing forcefully upon the snooze button. And depending upon one’s mood and determination to steal another 10 minutes of shuteye, this sequence is likely to repeat itself.
Unlike bees, explains University of Virginia biologist Gene Block, humans cannot tell time by an internal clock; even roosters rely on the appearance of the sun, which varies day to day. Whereas a bee’s internal clock is naturally set to return it to the same feeding location at the same time each day, humans must rely on alarms to simply wake up. If that nasty little buzzer didn’t go off, many would probably sleep until noon.
While clocks are primarily used as visual time-telling devices, chiming out the hour is an equally hallowed function. In fact, alarm clocks are no modern innovation. One of the simplest non-mechanical alarms consisted of a candle, a nail, and a tin pan. The nail was pressed into one of a series of gradation marks etched into the side of the candle that corresponded with the hours of the day. When the candle was lit, the wax melted down to the nail, which fell to the tin pan making a rattling clatter.
The development of the mechanical alarm clock, according to horological historian David Christianson, is laid to religion. Judaism and Islam require adherents to observe their faith at timed periods determined by the sun. With the development and formalization of Christianity, monasteries also exercised group prayer at eight specific times during the day. Somewhat less difficult to practice in the daytime, recognizing the hour for prayer was especially trying at night. Bell-ringers in the 12th century used mechanized clocks that released weight-driven gears to ring a small bell. In the 13th century weight-driven mechanical clocks with a speed governor were incorporated.
By the 17th century, the first domestic alarm clocks began to appear. In one early version, a notched cam rotated hour-by-hour for 12 hours; a lever would fall into the notch at each hour, releasing gears that repeatedly drove a hammer against a bell. Since these early alarms weren’t equipped with a shut-off, the bell would continue to clang until the action ran down.
During the 1700s numerous English clockmakers immigrated to the United States, bringing with them the concept of the alarm clock. In 1787 clockmaker Levi Hutchins of Concord, N.H., created a brass-movement clock that sounded an alarm at a fixed time—4 a.m., the time at which it was his “firm rule” to awaken.
Following the American Revolution, British brass became scarce. Additionally, the Jefferson Embargo and the War of 1812 further hindered the importation of materials, bringing American clock-making to a halt. As an alternative, American clockmakers began manufacturing clocks from wood into the 1820s.
In 1847 French inventor Antoine Redier patented the first adjustable mechanical alarm clock, but not until Oct. 24, 1876—when American Seth E. Thomas patented the small mechanical wind-up clock—did small versions gain worldwide recognition. As major U.S. companies began manufacturing small alarm clocks, companies around the world followed suit.
By 1942, with World War II in full swing, production of alarm clocks—as with most other consumer goods produced in the United States—ceased as factories converted to support the war effort. However, the consequent shortage of alarm clocks prompted workers to show up late—or miss entirely—their scheduled shifts. After perhaps one too many muttered excuses of “my alarm clock is broken,” the devices were put back into production and became one of the first “postwar” consumer goods manufactured in the United States.
Since then, the alarm clock has undergone numerous modifications and upgrades, particularly with its fusion with electricity. In today’s rapidly changing, technologically advanced society, the alarm clock may be a largely taken for granted nuisance, but it sure beats owning a rooster.
David Shapiro wrote about microchips in the premiere issue of the magazine; Associate Editor Brad Spychalski contributed to this article.