A Brief History of Alarm Clocks
“No other species demonstrates [the] unnatural act of prematurely and artificially terminating sleep.” So writes Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, and the author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Simon & Schuster: 2017). Only we humans made the decision to divide the day and night cycle into hours and then plan our lives around them. Thus, the alarm clock.
The first mechanical alarm clock was invented in 1787. Which means that in humans' 300,000 years of sleeping, we have only been waking up to the sound of an alarm for 0.12% of our earthly existence. Annoyingly, the man who invented that clock, an American named Levi Hutchins, was one of those early risers who set his alarm for 4:00 A.M. even though he didn’t need to wake up that early – “it was simply his ‘firm rule’ to wake before sunrise.” Yeah. He was that guy.
You know what else was invented in 1787? The U.S. Constitution. Yes, alarm clocks evolved right alongside the United States as well as its growing industrial and economic capacity. It’s no mistake that alarm clocks became a thing around the same time having to be at work at the factory became a thing: controlling time is one of the key aspects of modern capitalism.
Of course, neither the advent of alarm clocks nor of the capitalist economy (nor communism, for that matter) affected the average human’s reaction to being forced awake arbitrarily. It’s never been easy for us and it’s still not. For that reason, it’s surprising that it took nearly 200 years for the snooze button to be invented. The 1956 General Electric Telechron Snooz-Alarm clock was the first to offer this feature.
It seems clear that the need for alarm clocks will never go away. But if the 1787 version of the U.S. Constitution can be amended 27 times, can’t we evolve our alarm clocks, too?