A history of the alarm clock

By Dean Evans, Technology Writer
Discover the history of the alarm clock, from water clocks to charging alarm clocks.

Mankind has spent thousands of years trying to find the best way to wake up on time. From the chimes of St. Mark's Clocktower in Venice to the beeps of the
Brandstand CubieTime, the history of the alarm clock is a story where no idea is too crazy. 

The rise of the alarm clock is tied to humanity’s need to be ‘on time’ for events. In the past, for example, church bells would ring out to signal that it was time to gather for the morning service. While during the Industrial Revolution, factories sounded ear-splitting whistles to wake nearby workers ahead of their shifts.

These community alarms were designed to rouse anyone with earshot. But for a more personal wake-up call, the alarm clock timeline might start with the water clock, aka the ‘Clepsydra’.

These clocks were popular in ancient Greece and they worked by allowing water to drip from one container into another below. When engineer Ctesibius added the ability to drop pebbles onto a gong when water reached a certain level, the world’s first alarm clock was born.

The Clepsydra arguably set the tone for alarm clocks to follow, which have subsequently explored variations on how devices can be powered, how they display the passage of time, and the methods they use to wake us up.

Powering alarm clocks through the ages

While today’s alarm clocks typically plug into the mains, it’s far from the only source of timekeeping power tried by inventors over the years. For example, in addition to the water-powered Clepsydra, clocks have made use of:  

  • Sunshine - Ancient sundials and ‘time sticks’ relied on the shadows cast by the sun. Modern day hybrid solar alarm clocks, meanwhile, can be powered by sunshine during the day and by a battery at night. 
  • Mercury - Chinese versions of the water clock used mercury instead of water. Mercury has a much lower freezing point (-37.89°F), so these ancient alarm clocks could keep running through the depths of winter.
  • Sand - Maritime hourglasses proved popular during the 14th century, as the sand-powered clocks weren’t affected by the rolling motion as ships crossed the ocean. 
  • Wax - Medieval ‘candle clocks’ burned through thin wax candles, with the passage of time indicated by regularly spaced markings.
  • Incense - An Indian invention, incense-powered clocks became popular in China. They would burn specially manufactured incense to measure minutes, hours or days.
  • Weights - Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens is credited with inventing the first pendulum clock in 1656.
  • Springs - Wind up a traditional mechanical clock and energy is stored in its mainspring. This energy is slowly released, turning its clockwork gears.
  • Batteries - Battery-powered clocks are the perfect way to power portable travel alarm clocks, not to mention more complex mobile devices like phones and tablets.
  • Electricity - Plug an alarm clock into the mains and you are assured of constant, accurate timekeeping with enough power to support extra features, such as a built-in radio or Qi Wireless charging.

A short history of alarm clock displays 

It’s more than just a straight fight between analog and digital clock faces when it comes to alarm clock displays. The history of alarm clocks shows us that there are more options, including:

  • Chimes - Where a clock face can't be seen, chimes or bells can sound on the hour and half-hour to indicate the passing of time.
  • Speech - In 1933, the first talking telephone line service was established in Paris, France. Fast forward to today and you’ll find a speaking clock ability baked into smart speaker devices and in specialist talking clocks for the visually impaired.
  • Projection - Projection alarm clocks enable you to shine the analog or digital time onto any surface. Want a clock on the bedroom ceiling? You got it.

Do you need more than a beep to wake up?

If we go back to the Clepsydra we mentioned at the beginning of this article, the first alarm clock woke its maker by dropping pebbles on to a gong.

Since then, alarm clocks have employed various noises to rouse us from a dreamy sleep - from bells, buzzers and whistling cuckoos to radio, music, sound effects, even bright light. But all you really need is a beep.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. The history of the alarm clock is also one where inventors and designers are never content with a device that can simply wake you up on time. 

Since the 1980s, we’ve enjoyed an alarm clock revolution and the best alarm clocks now offer more than just a basic wake-up call. Look around and you can find clocks that roll, fly, brew you a morning coffee or that add convenient features such as a built-in Bluetooth speaker for music playback or USB ports for phone charging.

Discover the full history of the alarm clock (and eight modern interpretations of it) in our A History Of The Alarm Clock infographic. View it/download it below.

Click here to view/download the infographic.

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