Alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks. Their clocks ran on water, dripping at a consistent pace. Once the captured water reached a certain level, it would rush into a jar. As the air escaped through holes in a siphon, it created a whistling noise—the alarm.
Today when we think of antique alarm clocks, the picture in our minds looks more like a mechanical clock. The first mechanical alarm clocks were developed in Europe sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries. They were large, public clocks that chimed every hour to notify the local villagers of the time.
One American, Levi Hutchins, is often attributed with creating the first mechanical alarm clock in 1787, but alarm clocks were already in use in Europe, so historians are not unanimous on this point. Regardless, no one denies that Hutchins did in fact create a clock that sounded an alarm at 4 a.m. daily, the hour he wished to wake up.
From then on, clockmakers put a great deal of creativity into their alarm-clock designs, trying just about everything to get their customers out of bed in the morning.
The early 19th century saw the Tugaslugabed, in which a ring attached to a string that lead to the clock was placed around the user’s toe before they fell asleep. When the alarm went off, it pulled the string, which in turn pulled on the sleeper’s toe to wake them.
That clock was kind compared to the Mr. Savage’s Alarum Bedstead, unveiled in 1851. This alarm began innocently enough, sounding a bell to wake the user. However, if it was ignored, the apparatus would proceed to strip off the bed sheets. If the user still didn’t wake up, the mattress would slowly tilt sideways, literally forcing the user out of bed.
Around the same time, in 1847, Antoine Redier of France received a more practical patent for the first alarm clock that could be programmed by a user to go off at a specific time. In 1876, the Seth Thomas Clock Company received a patent for a bedside alarm clock.
Westclox released the Big Ben, a wind-up clock with a bell in the back, in 1908. In 1915, the smaller Baby Ben keywound alarm clock was released. With their sleek, simplistic, nickel-plated design and the bold numbers featured on their faces, the Big Ben and Baby Ben alarm clocks epitomize the Art Deco style of the time.
The Big Ben and Baby Ben were just the first of many popular clocks developed by Westclox. It released the Chime alarm in 1931, the Moonbeam in 1949, and its first snooze alarm, the Drowse, in 1959.
Alarms have been placed in numerous types of clocks over the years, such as German cuckoo clocks that chirp or play music, elaborately painted antique banjo clocks, and advertising clocks promoting everything from Corvettes to Coca-Cola to Disney.
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