How Did People Wake Up Before Alarm Clocks?

January 29, 2021

Of all the modern inventions that we rely on in our daily lives, the alarm clock is probably the most universally despised. Its deafening ding in the morning jolts us out of sleep and back into reality. Yet no matter how annoying the alarm clock is, they are also integral to getting us out of bed. This raises an interesting question. Before alarm clocks became so commonplace, how did people wake up?

Throughout the ages, even the simple act of telling the time has posed a great challenge to mankind, and we have tried to solve this problem with elaborate inventions. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians developed sundials and towering obelisks that could mark time with shadows that moved with the sun. Around 1500 B.C., humans made hourglasses, water clocks, and oil lamps that calibrated the passage of time with the movement of sand, water, and oil.

Out of these early inventions came some basic attempts at morning alarm clocks – such as the candle clock. These simple devices from ancient China had nails embedded in them, which were released when the wax melted, and at the appointed time the nails fell loudly into the metal disc below, waking the sleeper.

But this crude invention was unpredictable and unreliable. And so, until a more precise mechanical invention was created, humans had to rely on another, more innate way of keeping time: our own internal body clock.

Melinda Jackson, a senior researcher in sleep and psychology at RMIT University in Australia, says that humans have two biological processes that underlie our natural sleep and wake patterns: steady state and circadian rhythms. The main principle behind steady state – which is a signaling process controlled by the hypothalamic region of the brain – is that “the longer we’re awake, the higher our drive for sleep or likelihood of falling asleep is,” Jackson told Live Science. then, “when we fall asleep, the drive for sleep dissipates throughout the night” – which means when it’s time to wake up, she said.

Overlaying this, the circadian rhythm – which is also controlled by cells in the hypothalamus – is a parallel process that regulates the stages of sleep and alertness over the course of the day. This process is also influenced by light and dark, meaning that periods of alertness and sleepiness usually correspond to the light of the morning and the dark of the night, respectively. Jackson says that in the time before alarm clocks, this is how people likely woke up in time to the light of the rising sun, prompted by the accumulated hours of sleep.

Religious Cues
Sasha Handley, senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester, UK, researching sleep practices throughout British history, found that people in this Christian era often had their beds facing east – where the sun rises. Part of their reasoning was religious, she said, because the East was thought to be the direction from which Jesus would rise at the resurrection. But it’s also possible that this direction will also allow people to wake up with the sun’s rays.

“It’s hard to imagine a world right now where your patterns of sleeping and waking up again are directly influenced by the setting and rising of the sun,” Handley told Live Science.

Another simple but noteworthy fact is that people of yesteryear didn’t have the means to soundproof their houses against outside noise the way we do today, Handley added.” For a society that was predominantly agricultural before the Industrial Revolution, natural noise could be something very important,” she says. The crowing of roosters and the mooing of cows waiting to be milked can interrupt people’s sleep. Church bells also functioned as a kind of early alarm clock, she said.

Handley argues that historically, people may also have been more personally motivated to wake up at a particular time. Studies of early modern England suggest that in this era, the morning hour was seen as a spiritual time, and a person could demonstrate intimacy with God by waking up at a predetermined time to pray.” Getting up at a predetermined time was seen as a sign of good health and good morals,” says Handley.” There’s almost a sense of competition that underlies it. The earlier you get up, the more God favors your physical strength.”

But in the 16th and 17th centuries, getting up on your own might have become less important with the spread of the first household alarm clocks, or lantern clocks, which were powered by internal weights that would ring a bell as an alarm. In nineteenth-century England, wealthier families also employed door knockers – people who carried long sticks and kept banging on people’s windows until they were awakened. (Some knockers even used straws to shoot peas at their clients’ windows.)The popularity of cheap alarm clocks in the 1930s and 1940s gradually replaced these human timekeepers, the forerunners of the alarm clocks we know today.

But is our modern-day reliance on alarm clocks actually a good thing? Jackson isn’t so sure. In fact, today we tend to take advantage of weekends to sleep in, “which suggests that people need to free up more sleep time during the week by going to bed earlier in the evening, but we don’t do that.” She said. Instead, we’re working later and longer than ever before, and our evenings are being invaded by TVs, laptops and phones.” Sleep is not being prioritized,” says Jackson.” So we don’t have much choice but to use the alarm clock.”

In this regard, Handley believes that history may offer some lessons. In early modern history, there is evidence that people valued the health benefits of sleep very highly.” Getting a good night’s sleep was a really essential part of their regular health care practice,” says Handley.

Nighttime was highly ritualized. People consume hypnotic herbal drinks, stuff their pillows with soothing scented flowers, engage in calming activities like prayer and meditation before bed, or engage in mindless hobbies like embroidery.

If we were to take some advice from these time-honored humans, Handley says, it would be to “put sleep back at the center of the 24-hour cycle. Cherish it and enjoy it. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.” As an added bonus, waking up will be less of a drag.