Cause For Alarm: The Irritating Saga of the Alarm Clock by Marjorie Dorfman

Why do we need alarm clocks and where did they come from anyway? Why won’t they go away? Read on for the answer to these and other questions and, hopefully a smile.

"An Alarm Clock is A Wonderful Thing"
. . . No one I ever met

Almost everyone in the world has an annoying tale about alarm clocks to recount and I am no exception. When I was about 14, (back in the covered wagon days) my father thought it would be funny to plant a little surprise in my pocketbook. I was used to that, and a search for anything often turned into a weird sort of gestalt experience. There was no telling what I might find: assorted candy wrappers, paper clips, used clothing labels, band-aids (not used) and even empty matchbooks often found a home at the bottom of my leather abyss. The subject might have made an interesting horror film.

As I sat in the trendy café of the Museum of Modern Art with a friend one Saturday afternoon, an alarm went off very close to our table. Needless to say, my head turned along with everyone else’s searching for the source of the ringing. Something made me reach inside my bag where I found the small pulsating alarm clock whose stop button had long been lost. I buried it under mounds of tissue, covered my face with a napkin and slipped under the table until it finally stopped ringing.

This embarrassing moment could only have been surpassed by that of the inventor of the very first alarm clock who discovered that he could only set it to ring at 4AM! It all seems perfectly fitting to me (but then I am Old Testament, eye for an eye, in thinking). The man who came up with the idea to ruin everyone else’s sleep deserved whatever amount he lost in the creative process! (After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, n’est pas?) The gander in this case (or is it the goose?) is Mr. Levi Hutchins, who couldn’t have been too happy a camper on those alarming mornings in 1757 when his annoying contraption resounded throughout Concord, New Hampshire, awakening sleepy village idiots and cranky Paul Revere look-a-likes.

Where did clocks (alarm and otherwise) come from anyway? Down through history man has always used some form of time measurement, if only the seasons of the year or the phases of the moon. This was all that was needed in nomadic and agricultural communities and precise enough to serve their daily needs. The most accurate early devises were designed and utilized by the Chaldeans, the tribe of Moses. (One son married the daughter of Bulova and the rest is history!) The Chaldeans were a busy folk and the very first people attributed with dividing the night and day into twelve hours each. (Cole Porter’s torment over the issue didn’t occur until many years later.)

The Chaldean sun clocks took the form of a hole chipped out of a large rock, with the hour lines converging at the base of a large stick or peg. From simply indicating the passage of unspecified periods of day and night, the peoples of The Middle East soon moved on to bigger, but not necessarily better things, (in between getting lost in the desert and painting all those little camels on cigarette packages). They began to divide the day into more or less the same periods we use today, and time-keeping designs became more sophisticated, utilizing water, mechanical birds and even an early version of the public town clock.

And then came the sundial. It measured time from noon one day to noon the next, that is, for one revolution of the earth on its axis and for one encounter with Gary Cooper and those nasty outlaws at High Whatever. Many medieval churches had sundials long before steeple clocks. However, their major problem was that they only measured local time. Early mechanical clocks were inaccurate and often adjusted by the local sundial. As the time keeping of the clocks improved, the shortcomings of some of the sundials became apparent. Suspicious town folk, (assuaged only by repeated assurances from the village idiot and other members of his family who often vied for the position), took a long time to accept the more accurate and universal time measurement.

In 1504, the first portable timepiece was invented in Nuremberg, Germany, by Peter Henkin. The first reported person to actually wear a watch on the wrist (as opposed to on the ankle or across one’s ear) was the French mathematician, Blaise Pascal. His watch was attached to his wrist with a piece of string. In 1577, Jost Burgi invented the minute hand under the auspices of astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who needed an accurate clock for his stargazing. In 1651, the pendulum was invented by Christiaan Huygens, making clocks more accurate. And then we come to our man of the hour, Mr. Levi Hutchins of New Hampshire, who started the love-hate relationship with alarm clocks that persists to this day.

Part of the difficulty with alarm clocks has to do with an inability to appreciate their one purpose in life is to ruin a perfectly good night’s sleep. They are evil, the enemy, and they have the unmitigated gall to go off or come on, which is really closer to the truth, whenever I am in my deepest, most restful slumber. The fact that I have programmed them to do so is not the point, (or at least not one that I am willing to look at). A counter productive approach works best here; muffle the sound even if you have to throw the damn thing out the window!

We have come a long way from Levi Hutchin’s traditional spring-wound clockwork device of long ago. Today, there are many ways in which your sleep can be successfully ruined. Honorable mention goes to the volume switch on the radio alarm clock, which can control exactly how high you jump out of bed when the thing goes off! (High ceiling bedrooms offer the best odds here.) The degree of arousal and awareness is dependent on the radio station selected to wake you up. Why choose falling water or soft music? It will only soothe you awake and permit everyone else in your house to sleep a bit longer. Misery loves company. If you have to get up, do it to a significant drum roll or Heavy Metal. If you are very cultured in your waking hours, consider The William Tell Overture at full blast! (The Lone Ranger won’t mind.)

And now a few words about the sleep and snooze alarms. The sleep button is most annoying because its name belies its purpose. It allows the radio to come on and then go off suddenly, without even saying goodbye. The snooze alarm is a tricky little dicky that will pretend to be your friend. Actually, it’s process of granting you some respite and then taking it away reminds me of some ancient Chinese torture, like the death of a thousand egg rolls. Setting it an hour before you need to get up might make you feel like you are ahead of the game, but consider how much better you would sleep if there was no alarm and no snooze aid to help it along! Traitors and assassins to the innocent sleepers of the world, they are. Shall we unite? Here’s a plan.

Buy several alarm clocks and set them to go off at five-minute intervals. Then spend the night somewhere else. That’s one way of telling them it isn’t so even when they say it is! Set the clock and put it in another room. It may disturb someone else, but at least it won’t be you this time! Keep a hammer by the bed and smash the alarm clock whenever it dares to ruin your sleep. You will win, but it will cost you, Last but not least, consider getting a rooster instead of a clock and keep him happy.

If all this fails and you feel you must come to terms with an alarm of some type in your home, at least learn to customize. I would like mine to resemble a hand grenade. The pop could be the alarm and I'm sure that the ensuing explosion would make me jump out of bed at least a foot! If you are the quiet, walk-in-the-woods, open-shoe type, you may enjoy the Zen clocks that are available on the market today. They depict harmony in nature with Japanese wave, cloud and sushi designs. Or perhaps the world’s largest alarm clock is more your speed. Its sellers boast a bell of more than four inches in diameter. Celebrity alarm clocks will certainly appeal to the more star-struck among us. Made to look and sound like your favorite famous people, you can have The Everly Brothers admonish you to "Wake Up Little Susie" even if your name is Maurice. Marilyn Monroe whispering sweet nothings into a male ear is guaranteed to arouse (more than an ear, I’d say). The sky’s the limit, but you do have to wake up. There’s that.

All that being said, clocks usually leave me alone. I am an early riser and even though I set the clock, I usually get up before it has a chance to do me in. It’s almost a point of principle for me and I like it that way. I suppose alarm clocks are here to stay and that they do some good, after all. Why, we couldn’t go to war if we were all asleep, now could we? Nor could we pay taxes, go to work, get tired or even start forest fires. A comatose environment seems best. Are you with me or no? If so, sound the alarm. Once it’s, "Yes," and two it’s, "Well, maybe."

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002