Wake me up before you...wait, how did YOU wake up so early?
June 3, 2011 8:26 AM   Subscribe

Completely random question: How did people wake up at a certain time before the spread of cheap, accessible clocks?

I rely on my alarm clock to wake me up on normal days, and doubly so when I need to wake up at some earlier-than-usual time to catch a plane or set out on a long drive or do some work or whatever. How did people do this before there were cheap, easy ways of setting an alarm for a certain time?

I realize that most people's lives fell into some sort of routine, and if they went to sleep at the same (early) time every night, they'd naturally wake at the same (early) time every morning. But what about when they had to wake up earlier for some specific event, perhaps earlier than the sunrise, or were up much later than usual for some reason but still needed to get up at the same time? There is some interesting historical information on the wikipedia alarm clock page, but they all seem to be striking clock towers or very specialized and (one presumes) expensive devices. How would a peasant without a clock or watch at all have done this?

I have always been curious about this; I was reskimming Jane Eyre and noticed again that everyone's ability to wake up extra-early whenever they feel like it gives me an uneasy feeling of moral failure. PLUS, Eliza Reed is mentioned as having an "alarum" to wake her early every day; what might this device have been? The first settable wind-up alarm clock apparently wasn't invented until 1876.
posted by peachfuzz to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no expert on the subject, but I don't use an alarm clock anymore.

Because I've found that using an alarm for my wake up time just makes me feel really tired during the day, I thought I'd try going to bed at a regular time and letting my body decide when I need to get up. It takes a couple of weeks to get a routine time, but it works well and I feel less tired that way.

In response to the second part of your question, I have tried that as well for when I do need to get up. I need about 8 and a half hours sleep and usually go to bed between 11:30pm-midnight, so my body usually wakes me up at 8:20am (ish). When I need to get up earlier, I just go to bed earlier on the previous night. For example, if I need to get up at 6am, I'll go to bed two hours earlier; thus I will still get the 8 and a half hours required.
posted by sockpim at 8:39 AM on June 3, 2011

The first settable wind-up alarm clock apparently wasn't invented until 1876.

Seth Thomas patented a small bedside alarm clock in 1876 - clocks with alarms existed long before this.
posted by zamboni at 8:41 AM on June 3, 2011

mentalfloss.com had an article about it....

posted by fozzie33 at 8:42 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you have a rooster then the trick becomes sleeping late, not getting up early.
posted by jedicus at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the days before electric lighting, people went to bed earlier?
posted by plep at 8:59 AM on June 3, 2011

It's not hard to plant a mental suggestion to get up at a certain time. If you live without an alarm clock your body and mind pick up the slack.
posted by hamandcheese at 9:09 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Drinking a ton of water before bed. Or sleeping by a window to wake at sunrise, maybe.
posted by cp311 at 9:13 AM on June 3, 2011

That Mental Floss article is interesting, and helps to belay my fears that we as a people are losing our ability to do these kinds of things (like read maps/depend on sense of direction rather than in-car GPS or memorize phone numbers rather than just punch the contact button on the cell phone).

I myself have never been able to rely on my internal time clock to wake up, but drinking a lot of water before bed makes sense.
posted by Addlepated at 9:14 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find that if I need to get up extra early for something important, the stress of worrying about it makes me momentarily wake up several times a night. Look at clock, not time yet, back to sleep. My alarm wakes me up for work, but when I set my alarm earlier than that, I rarely hear it go off, since I wake up somewhere just before that time anyway, get up, and turn it off.
posted by ctmf at 9:15 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

But what about when they had to wake up earlier for some specific event

In some situations (say, on a ship, or in the military), you would have a rotating crew on watch, able to monitor the time and awaken you when needed, or when it's your turn to stand watch.

Don't think is too farfetched. The world was very different prior to alarm clocks, for reasons having nothing to do with alarm clocks. Before there were alarm clocks, there were also no telephones or fire alarms, so it made sense to have someone staying up at night.

Similarly ... in the days before alarm clocks (or rather, cheap clocks anyone could use), it was also common to simply not work according to the clock. You woke up at sunrise and worked. You fell asleep at night. Lather, rinse, repeat enough times, and you'll get on a pretty regular schedule.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:16 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

In the days of big domestic staffs, they may also have just had someone up at night to wake them at the right time. I know on a submarine to this day, having a noisy alarm clock in a shared berthing is frowned upon. Instead, you can leave your name and a time with the messenger of the watch, and he'll come wake you when you need it.
posted by ctmf at 9:18 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It all depends on when and where you're talking about, and the economic class of the people, but in general: roosters, dawn light, large church bells, wind-up clocks with chimes. In a large household like Rochester's there would be loads of manual work to be done, and those routines were more interconnected. The first person wakes at dawn with the rooster, feeds the chickens and splits some wood for a fire--noise of chopping wood wakes the cook, she wakes the laundress, etc. Not even to mention crying babies. I don't think it was as much needing to wake before 6am and knowing that when you hear birds singing you have to get up and shoot some so your family could well eat that night, and that time might happened to be 6am.
posted by tula at 9:42 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Church bells. Muezzin. Roosters.
posted by miyabo at 9:48 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think people went to bed as soon as it got dark and woke up as as soon as it got light.

there was a piece I heard on the radio about human sleep patterns before the invention of alarm clocks or electric lights that suggested people had periods of wakefulness during the night as well.

posted by custard heart at 9:53 AM on June 3, 2011

Similarly ... in the days before alarm clocks (or rather, cheap clocks anyone could use), it was also common to simply not work according to the clock. You woke up at sunrise and worked. You fell asleep at night. Lather, rinse, repeat enough times, and you'll get on a pretty regular schedule.

Also exact time was a lot less important back then. The biggest early push for precise timekeeping was probably from the longitude problem in the 1700s which eventually led to the marine chronometer. But it wasn't until railroad time was necessary for everyday people in small towns to have the exact same local time as any other town. There is no inherent reason for people to keep an exact schedule in any given day, it's only important if the world they live in requires it to be, and if the technology doesn't exist to make it happen then the world won't require them to.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

They had babies. Really, I haven't used an alarm clock since the day we brought home our daughter. Perhaps at some point she'll do the teenager sleep-til-noon thing but for now, her internal clock works just fine.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:19 AM on June 3, 2011

I'm vaguely recalling that church bells were often used for marking matins; in a community where these were observed, that would have been a pretty reliable way to check the time, I'm thinking.
posted by Ys at 10:22 AM on June 3, 2011

I don't know how all of you are so blithely writing off alarm clocks! I wake up at 4:55 and there is nothing that will get me out of bed other than a loud noise. Of course, on my off-day I wake up in a panic at about 5:30 thinking I am incredibly late for something, so the mind thing might work at more reasonable hours.

Also, I always figured pioneer type people woke up with the sun, and as the days grew longer and shorter got more and less rest depending on the time of year and the work they had to do. Summer? Long days of harvesting. Winter? Short dark days of whittling or whatever. But this is based only on extensive reading of Little House on the Prairie books.
posted by hepta at 10:36 AM on June 3, 2011

This book suggests, among other things, that sleep in the past was in general less deep and less secure (because crime and other dangers were more rampant), that timekeeping was less of an individual matter and more of a community matter (because of public clocks and their bells and institutions like the night watch or even community curfews, and also because of the "no adequate lighting after dark" issue mentioned above), and finally that sleep patterns in the past were in general radically different from what they are now.
posted by bubukaba at 11:35 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by FunGus at 12:01 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I live about two blocks from a church with church bells, which are only rung full-volume on Easter, and dude, they are LOUD on Easter. Otherwise they strike the hour and half hour from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., year round. Even on their more muted volume, I can hear them quite well inside my house, windows closed, air conditioner running, unless it is extremely windy or stormy.

I always at least partially wake up at 7 a.m. from the church bells. (Well, I have a toddler, I wake at 5:30 now, but before that: 7 a.m. with the bells.)

Sometimes in old novels from the 1700s and 1800s they are very careful to wind the chiming clock before bed so it will be sure to chime in the morning.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:24 PM on June 3, 2011

How did people wake up at a certain time ...?

Welcome to the world of the knocker-up
posted by genesta at 1:31 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I know for myself that when I set an alarm clock for early in the morning I usually wake up about five minutes before it goes off. My body apparently knows when it's time to get up.

I've always assumed that this attribute was somewhat common. It only takes one person to wake up on time to get everyone else out of bed.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:58 PM on June 3, 2011

But what about when they had to wake up earlier for some specific event

Somewhere in James Burke's Connections (probably "The Wheel Of Fortune") he describes the development of clocks and the force behind that development: religion, and the need to wake up early in order to pray at the right time.
posted by Rash at 2:54 PM on June 3, 2011

bubukaba, that link to the piece on segmented sleep is fascinating - I'd never heard of it, but now I feel so much better about those days I come in from work so exhausted that I flop into bed, sleep for a bit, lie there and think for a bit, then get up for a while, before going back to bed. I'm not a lazy slob, I'm unusually in tune with my natural rhythms - who knew?!
posted by penguin pie at 3:46 PM on June 3, 2011

To add to the anecdata, I haven't used an alarm clock for twenty years, except when traveling and jet-lagged. But I also didn't use an alarm-clock while growing up. I lived on a farm, and in summer woke up with the sun. In winter, my dad woke me up when he headed out for the day.

Go to bed earlier, and it's not that hard to wake up earlier. Things are a little tougher in the summer here in MN, because the nights get shorter and it's tough to get a full 8 hours of darkness, but I make up for it with naps.

It also gets easier to wake up as you get older. Trips to the bathroom. Aches and pains. Noise from kids, etc.
posted by DaveP at 6:40 PM on June 3, 2011

The book The Geography of Time addresses almost everything in this question. The short of it is that before people had synchronized, accurate clocks, they simply didn't wake up at specific times because there was no true concept of a specific time, but rather took their cues from nature based on very broad ideas of time. Sunlight, sunset, high noon, early evening, etc. If you knew you'd have to be somewhere by afternoon, for example, you'd either get up when there was light or shortly after, or else you'd just be "late" which wasn't a huge deal because there wasn't a true concept of being late until after we had synchronized, accurate clocks; it was commonplace to just sit around and wait for everyone to arrive. It seems that when people had to meet before sunrise, like for some covert purpose, they simply took a nap or didn't sleep.

If you were wealthy enough, or far along in history to have a chiming clock, you could use it as a reference point, but since most people's clocks weren't synchronized with each other it only helped so much and only so much punctuality was expected.

The idea of arriving somewhere at a very specific time -- like down to the minute or ten minutes -- really wasn't a thing until about the industrial boom in the early 20th century. Shortly before that you might agree to meet at "8AM," but it was understood people's clocks would not be synchronized and time was not a thing you could pin down so precisely, so it wouldn't be odd to wait for as much as an hour or more in practice.

Work, school, events, whatever -- they all started when it was reasoned that enough people had shown up, if it mattered that everyone begin something at once.
posted by Nattie at 8:26 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Back when I did this sort of thing and didn't stay up at all hours, my friend Fat Steve of the Mountains and I used to joke how no one ever had to set the alarm for a day of fishing. We'd be reliably up at 4 in the morning, back when I didn't believe 4 in the morning existed.

Something about anticipation makes one sleep lightly, I think.
posted by FauxScot at 11:12 PM on June 3, 2011

In some places where Ramazan is observed, there is a traditional role for a man who walks through the streets calling out to sleepers to wake for the pre-fast meal.
posted by tavegyl at 2:44 AM on June 4, 2011

I think people went to bed as soon as it got dark and woke up as as soon as it got light.

Eh, not really. We have tons of accounts of balls, parties, shows, events, lasting well past midnight and personal diaries showing a wide range of sleep patterns
posted by The Whelk at 7:37 AM on June 4, 2011

In my Brooklyn neighborhood the Hasidic community uses loud sirens to mark the exact moment of sundown for Shabbos. I can hear it quite clearly in my apartment with the windows shut, amid all the other city noises. The same goes for times I've been in Muslim parts of the world with regard to prayer times - in fact when I was in Agra, India, trying to wake up at 5am to watch the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, it was mainly the muezzin that woke me up.

So if it was a situation where there was a collective need to get up earlier than usual, there's always that - designate someone in the community to make a really loud noise everyone will be able to hear at the right time.

I'm not sure there were many situations where it was important that some individual wake up early and there was nobody else who could wake them. Life was a lot less individualistic back then.
posted by Sara C. at 7:25 PM on June 4, 2011

Roosters, also you would not believe the amount of noise a cow or goat that needs milking will make. So I imagine farmers had no problem getting up early.
posted by wwax at 9:29 PM on June 4, 2011

This fascinating article examines pre-industrial sleeping patterns, the effect of electric light and the role mattress ad copy has played in changing how we think about sleep in the West.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:07 AM on June 5, 2011

I've always thought that people in modern times have more need of an alarm clock because we're a lot more likely to be sleep-deprived (and therefore unable to wake ourselves up). Studies have been done (sorry, no links) that confirm that the average amount of sleep has been declining for years in industrialized countries.
posted by timepiece at 10:02 AM on June 6, 2011

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