This is the time of year when we Australians start to get back to our normal rhythms. The first beats of the day are often the dreaded wake-up call beeps or a digital symphony from a bedside phone.
These modern electronic alarms are just the latest in a long sequence of methods used to wake us from sleep: the sentries on the old city walls waiting for dawn most recent clocks on wheels that must be chased to stop ringing.
The job of waking us up when our body clocks tell us to sleep is in great demand. When did we start using alarms and what did they look like? What has changed in the sounds of time and what has not changed?
Some of the earliest words we have for timekeeping show people’s special interest in dividing up the different parts of the night.
In the pre-modern world, without electric lights or electric alarms, people paid more attention to the quality of light and the sounds around them. A rich vocabulary emerged in ancient languages for different parts of the night. A first latin word because the time before dawn was gallicinium, the time of the rooster crowing. Scientists have since discovered roosters really know what time it is.
Bird song remains an important way to experience awakening. In Australia, we often think of birdsong when we think of sleep and wakefulness. Singing Magpies in the Morning, at the versatile currawong or the midnight call of Willie Wagtails. Less melodic, although just as striking, is another possible bird sound associated with getting up early – “sparrow fart” –attested for the first time In the 19th century.
Human wake-up calls
The human body has developed its own repertoire of alarms.
The Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, sung by men called muezzin, is one of the most visually striking examples, with different versions marking the differences between traditions and regions. the melismatic song– where a single syllable is sung over several musical notes – is both a wake-up call to prayer (“Prayer is better than sleep”) and a prayer in itself.
Some morning calls were combined with weather forecast systems. In the 15th century, the Town Criers of Sandwich Harbor on the south coast of England signaled wind changes at night so seafarers would know when favorable (or unfavorable) winds arose. Much later, in parts of the industrial world, professional knockers can use a polka dot shooter or stick to press windows to wake you up for your shift.
Having humans waking you up would generally mean that someone has to stay awake all night. But how would that person know when to sound the alarm? Sundials would obviously be unnecessary. This is one of the reasons why technologies have developed to count the hours of the night – ancient and medieval. water clocks with markings to show how the flow of water corresponds to the passage of time, and later (from around the 14th century) sand glasses in the shape of a familiar hourglass.
The Middle Ages saw one of our most amazing inventions: mechanical clocks, originally driven by weights. Gravity pulled the hanging weights down to drive the clock mechanism. The weights were periodically reassembled for another cycle.
These clocks started out as large objects in churches and belfries across the city. Some had elaborate automatons: the extraordinary 16th century Strasbourg clock features a famous rooster whose cries echo through the cathedral. His automated rooster is from an earlier clock made in the 14th century.
Some large clocks played music on bells before striking the hours. This year marks the 700th anniversary of what may be the first musical clock of its kind, installed in a monastery near Rouen in 1321. He played a hymn, Conditor alme siderum (Dear Creator of the stars), for the Advent season which begins the Christian year.
These chimes are our first recorded mechanical music and a precursor to today’s musical alarms. The technology was probably developed by tech-geek monks as a way to manage the wake-up call to sing their prayers at night – even better if that wake-up call, like the adhan, was a godly prayer in itself.
The modern alarm clock
The first versions of the clocks we know today were made for large communities, public spaces, or courtly elites.
Gradually however, and certainly between the middle and the end of the 15th century, you might find iron wall clocks in private houses (made in places still famous for watchmaking, such as Switzerland). These often had pins you could place around the clock to set the ringtone at any given time. These house revivals could wake up the owner to work and pray.
It was also around this time that compact spring mechanisms made smaller and small personal watches possible, worn or worn on the body from the 16th century.
The personalization of time accelerated in the 19th century and gave rise to modern and wild revivals. Among the most outstanding inventions of the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin was a clock that lit a candle after the alarm went off.
While nothing has reached the sophistication of the Rube-Goldberg-style breakfast alarm clocks seen on Goodies, the automaton alarms promised freshly brewed coffee and toast or even just their aroma. Here, the familiar sounds of the kitchen, with their tantalizing morning scents, soften the sudden awakening from sleep.
Today’s alarms, with all their invention, come as a gift (or depending on how much you like to wake up, a curse) from the Middle Ages to us today.
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Quote: Wakey Wakey: A History of Awakenings and the Mechanics of Time (2021, February 1) retrieved February 1, 2021 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-02-wakey-history-alarm-clocks-mechanics. html
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