From Cavemen to Kanye: A History of Morning’s Most Hated Invention

Posted by Mike Dellaquila on


Four out of five mornings my alarm clock wakes me up to the soothing sounds of Kanye West’s “Good Morning” and prompts me to get ready for work or class. I should clarify that when I say alarm clock, I actually mean the alarm clock application on my iPad. Because I have been using this device as my alarm clock for several years and have become accustomed to my routine, I often forget that people haven’t always been woken up by iPads. This made me wonder: why did humans invent the alarm clock? To answer that question, and get to the bottom of morning’s most hated invention, let’s take a trip through history and see how people have woken up over time.


In the earliest civilizations, which date back to the late fourth and third millennia BC and were located in parts of Asia and Africa, nature took care of waking people. At this point in history, there were no clocks whatsoever; instead natural phenomena like the rising sun and crowing roosters served as the caveman’s Kanye, signaling it was time to rise and start the day.  As civilizations became more advanced, so did the ways in which individuals roused themselves off the palm bough and pallets. According to Yahoo Voices, individuals in ancient China and Greece used water and candle clocks to keep track of time and wake themselves up. Water clocks work by dripping at an hourly rate and candle clocks contained a metal ball embedded in the wax that would fall into a metal plate after the candle burned down. Greek philosopher Plato is credited with creating the first alarm, which he accomplished by setting up a pump in the lower container of the water clock. The pump would transport water into another basin where the escape of air through holes would create a whistling alarm.


I was unable to find a definitive reason why the need for alarm clocks developed, but a few sources attributed their invention to the period in history known as the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, keeping time was generally viewed to be less important. As society transitioned from hand and home production to machine and factory production, however, it became more important for people to be conscious of time. In fact, in order to ensure that factory workers and miners arrived at work on time, some industrial towns employed a “Knocker-Upper,” which was an individual who was paid to knock on windows with large sticks in order to wake up people in time for their shifts at factories and mines. Knocker-Uppers often had to wake up before dawn and were paid very minimally for their services, and it was from this profession that a need for affordable and reliable alarm clocks emerged.


The first mechanical clocks were made in the 14th century, but were too large for household use.  By 1620, household clocks were in use and some had very simple alarm mechanisms. In 1787, Levi Hutchens of New Hampshire became the first American to try his hand (pun kind of intended) at creating a mechanical alarm clock. He succeeded, but the bell on his clock could only ring at 4:00 a.m. In 1847, a Frenchman invented the adjustable alarm, which allowed individuals to pick the time they wanted to be woken up. In 1876, the Connecticut-based Seth Thomas Clock Company was awarded a patent for a mechanical wind-up alarm clock that was small enough to fit on a bedside table and could be set for any time.


After this invention, small alarm clocks became popular and widespread as clock companies kept improving on existing inventions. American businessman, musician, and pastor James F. Reynolds invented the first radio alarm clock in the 1940s. Not long after, General Electric invented the first snooze alarm in 1956. In 2006, the online alarm clock was invented and as technology continues to get more advanced, so do alarm clocks. Now alarm clock apps for smartphones and tablets have the ability to monitor sleep patterns and wake individuals up at the optimum time. Some even claim to be able to influence dreams (see my article on the Dream:ON application).


While conducting research for this article, I came across several outrageous alarm clocks that have been invented throughout history that were too good not to share. One of my personal favorites is Clocky, the alarm clock that runs away when you hit the snooze button. Apparently, this alarm clock has two large wheels attached on either side and proceeds to roll off a nightstand if the snooze button is pressed. Clocky then proceeds to find a location to hide before activating the alarm again, forcing this unfortunate sleeper to get out of bed and turn off the alarm. I think it’s safe to say this invention is equal parts genius and evil. To see the rest of the over-the-top alarm clock inventions, read the full Mental Floss article.  


Although it may not be our favorite invention, I think most of us would prefer to be roused from slumber by an alarm clock than a stranger banging on our windows with a stick. Society has come a long way since the earliest civilizations relied on nature to wake them up, and I hope you found this brief trip through history as interesting as I did. If your morning routine is unique, tell us how in the comments section below or on our Facebook page! 

About Mike

Mike is a graduate journalism student at the University of Missouri-Columbia focusing on strategic communication and advertising. After graduation, he hopes to work on the creative side of the advertising industry as a copywriter. He likes movies, music, dogs, sports, and America. View all articles by Mike
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