Magazine

Wake-up call: Why are we slaves to our alarm clocks?

  • 6 January 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Alarm clock

A glitch in iPhones has caused headaches by failing to wake up their owners. How did alarm clocks make us so dependent upon them?

You might curse it, each morning, as it jolts you from your slumbers. It may be the contraption which abruptly shatters the reverie of sleep and fanfares the mundane world of work.

But whether you are a naturally early riser or a serial snooze-hitter; whether yours bleeps, buzzes, rings or blares out the breakfast radio show, it's difficult to imagine how modern society would get started each day without the assistance of the alarm clock.

In a world where time is an increasingly scarce commodity, it provides an invaluable function, if not one for which most would give more than the most grudging of thanks.

Each year, it finds a new guise under which to proliferate - our radios, digital watches, phones and televisions are all possessed with the sprit of the old-fashioned carriage clock, each capable of rousing or alerting us on cue.

Returning after the Christmas holidays, workers have been reminded anew of their dependence on their own device.

But users of the iPhone, in particular, have had this brought home the hard way. A technical glitch on the Apple device prevented its built-in alarm going off, leaving many people oversleeping in the first days of the new year.

David McCormick, 35, of Liverpool, was one of them. He had planned to get up at 0830 GMT on 2 January and spend his Sunday making wedding invitations with his fiancée.

But when his iPhone alarm failed to sound, he slept in until midday - scuppering his plans, forcing him to spend his weekday evenings after work finishing the task and subjecting him to his fiancee's suspicions that he had simply pressed snooze.

"It made me want to go back to the old wind-up alarm clock," he sighs. "But it also goes to show how reliant you are on these things."

David may not welcome the mishap as he trudges home from work each day this week to an evening of cardboard and glitter. But it was, if the pun can be excused, a timely intervention.

When a survey in 2009 suggested that 52% of us used a mobile phone to wake us up, the Daily Express trumpeted the story below the headline: BELL TOLLS FOR ALARM CLOCKS.

In fact, the iPhone represents simply the latest incarnation of a device that has been with us, in a variety of guises, for centuries.

According to Viscount Alan Midleton, curator and librarian at the British Horological Institute, the ancient Greeks and Romans had "quite sophisticated" water-powered clocks, the flow of which could be measured and timed to give off a signal; in the seventh century, the Chinese developed a device on the same principles which would strike at set hours.

When St Benedict laid out, in painstaking detail, the daily itinerary for Christian monks, it became imperative for religious orders to develop alarms, initially based on the flow of water but later taking advantage of developments in mechanised clocks in the Middle Ages. The invention of the pendulum in 1656 and the balance spring circa 1670 meant timekeeping could be more accurate than ever before.

But still the alarm clock remained beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population until the late 19th century, by which time the industrial revolution had both made them available to the masses and required those same workers to be in factories at specific shift times.

Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech and author of At Day's Close: A History of Night-time, says that in the pre-industrial era, most people in Europe practised what he calls "segmented sleep": having "first sleep" from finishing work until midnight, waking to talk and socialise, then having a "second sleep" until dawn.

In this era, he says, alarm clocks were simply not necessary because people's sleep patterns were more natural.

"Our sleep pattern is 200 years old - it's an artificial product of modernity," Prof Ekirch says. "But our bodies are acutely sleep-deprived.

"That's why we're constrained to rely on artificial means to jolt us awake."

Not everyone has such a negative view of the alarm clock's role in regimenting our post-industrial lie-ins, however.

According to Viscount Midleton, it freed the people from having their time under the exclusive control of their social superiors.

Prior to its mass productions, he argues, workers had to live close to where they worked so they were in earshot of the factory horn signalling a change in shift.

"What this means is that the alarm clock allows us to live where we want to live," he says.

"We aren't dependent on public time for our timekeeping."

This emancipation characterisation of the alarm clock might be one that few of us would care to recognise at the moment it goes off.

But if it truly is our liberator rather than our oppressor, perhaps we should strike it a little less hard next time it wakes us.

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