History of Alarm Clocks

History of Alarm Clocks

Updated: July 20, 2023

4 min read

While we may not always be happy with alarm clocks, we couldn't live without them! Those annoying devices that pull us from our peaceful slumbers keep the world functioning.

As technology has progressed over the years, so have our alarm clocks. They've changed many times, but the concept has remained almost entirely the same. The history of alarm clocks and their progression through the centuries is an interesting story. What started as something ancient that used running streams and the stars to track time is now an online device we all carry in our back pockets.

Let's delve into the history of when alarm clocks were invented, who the first person to use an alarm clock was, and how people woke up before they were invented.

When Was the Alarm Clock First Invented?

It's assumed that the alarm clock was first invented back in 222 BC by the Hellenistic inventor Ctesibius by fixing a mechanical device to his clepsydras. These were ancient water clocks used to measure time using the gradual flow of water.

Around 222 BC, Ctesibius fitted a mechanical device to his clepsydras that would drop pebbles onto a gong or blow trumpets when the water reached a certain flow. Without knowing it, Ctesibius had just invented the first alarm clock that would soon be used across the world less than 2,000 years later!

He wasn't the only one that had the idea of notifying people what time it was using an ancient alarm clock. Plato in ancient Greece used a water clock to signal the beginning of his lectures, while the Buddhist monk inventor Yi Xing in China used the stars to get a clock to strike once an hour.

But it wasn't until the 15th century that alarm clocks started to take shape in Europe as we know them today. We don't know who the inventor was, but we know the devices had a ring of holes on each number and a pin that could be placed in one of them to set the alarm.

Who Was the First Person to Use an Alarm Clock?

The first recorded person to use a modern-day alarm clock is reported to be the American Levi Hutchins in 1787. He only made the device for himself, which is why it had just one setting - to sound every day at 4 AM.

Thankfully, Levi Hutchins had no intention of turning a profit from his device and never created another 4 AM alarm clock ever again. It wasn't until the French inventor Antoine Rédier patented an adjustable mechanical alarm clock in 1847 that the devices began to soar in popularity.

Since the patent only applied to Europe, Seth E. Thomas kicked things off in America by creating a wind-up alarm clock that was produced and sold to the masses. This was a turning point and is said to be when alarm clocks became commonplace in the general population.

How Did People Wake Up Before Alarm Clocks?

Before alarm clocks were invented, people used to wake up when the sun rose or their servants woke them up. Waking up at a certain time wasn't important for people back then, likely because they had no way of waking up at a certain time!

It wasn't until factory work came about that people needed to start their day at a certain time. Usually, people lived close to where they worked, so many factories would blow whistles to wake up the workers nearby.

However, this wasn't the case in Britain and Ireland. Before alarm clocks were popular, they used a different tactic and employed knocker-uppers. These knocker-uppers would walk the streets banging on people's doors and windows to wake them up. They would often use large poles or pea shooters to reach the upstairs bedrooms.

Types of Alarm Clocks and Their History

In the last 2,000 years, the world has seen many different types of alarm clocks. Most ancient alarm clocks aren't used anymore (like water clocks). But traditional wind-up and mechanical alarm clocks are still a popular choice for people today as vintage items.

Mechanical alarm clocks

Aside from the water-clock contraptions used in ancient times, the mechanical alarm clock (invented in the 15th century) was the first alarm clock to be used by the masses.

You'll usually find that a mechanical alarm clock has two bells on either side with a little hammer in the middle. At the pre-set time, a mainspring powers a gear to swing the hammer back and forth in a rapid motion - creating a loud ringing sound.

Digital alarm clocks

Digital alarm clocks were invented in the 1960s at the same time LCD (liquid crystal display) lighting was first discovered. The 1904 spring-wound clocks inspired them with numbers that flipped over as time passed.

You'll mostly recognize a digital alarm clock as a radio alarm, with a 24hr time display in red, green, white, or black writing.

Sunrise alarm clocks

The concept of dawn simulation was first patented in 1890, but it wasn't until 1973 that sunrise alarm clocks were invented. They work by gradually increasing the amount of light in your bedroom over a period of 30-60 minutes. The idea is that it simulates the rising of the sun and taps into our circadian rhythms to create a more gentle and natural waking experience.

In the early days, sunrise alarm clocks were mainly used in clinical settings to help patients form a consistent sleep-wake routine. Nowadays, they are highly popular among athletes that need to wake up before sunrise or people that live in countries where the mornings are darker in winter.

Online alarm clocks

In the modern world, most people work online and browse the web for most of their day. This led to the rise in online alarm clocks.

You'll often find an online alarm clock as an app or website that lets you set alarms for different periods. They are a new approach to modern alarm clocks and are often used to wake people up or as part of time management throughout the workday to help people stay focused and productive.

Burak Özdemir
My name is Burak, and I used to have difficulties waking up in the morning due to unreliable alarm clocks. Over the past few years, I've dedicated part of my life to sharing my knowledge about time and alarm clocks with people through this blog.