We have complicated relationships with our alarm clocks. They’re necessary for keeping appointments and staying employed, but you won’t find many people that actually enjoy being jolted out of bed to the same tone every morning. No matter how much you’ve grown to despise the incessant beeping of your alarm, know that waking up was no less of a struggle for previous generations. After all, there are no snooze buttons for church bells or factory whistles. Here are seven ways people would wake up before the invention of the modern alarm clock.
1. Drinking a Lot of Water
Earlier humans drank tons of water if they needed to wake up before the sun. If you’re over the age of 30 or so, you probably know what getting up in the middle of the night to pee is all about. The custom of “over-drinking” before bed was allegedly used by Native American tribes so they could wake up early for raids.
2. The Clepsydra
Speaking of water, the clepsydra, or water clock, was used by early civilizations for thousands of years. They weren’t so much clocks as they were timers, working in much the same way a common hourglass works. It wasn’t until 245 BCE that Ktesibius of Alexandria improved the clepsydra, or “water thief” as it was known, and created the world’s first mechanical clock. It’s mind-boggling to think about what Ktesibius accomplished: Seasonal cycles required irregular water levels to be dispensed into a receiving vessel with equidistant hour-marks, while daily cycles required varying hour-marks and regular efflux. Making the clepsydra an alarm clock required nothing more than a floating bob that struck an alarm once it reached a desired level. Later versions turned gears, signaling an alarm or even springing a catapult that launched a pellet into a metallic plate.
3. Bells from Houses of Worship
In many early Christian societies, bells called churchgoers to prayer in the morning. Religious bells also served to mark the passage of time throughout the day before people wore watches. In most Islamic traditions, audible tones and prayers marked the start of the day (just as they do today). The Fajr (“dawn”) is the first of five daily prayers blasted through the village. Four more prayers follow the sun and help mark the passage of time every day.
4. Peg Clocks
Around 1555 CE, Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma’ruf invented a few different types of mechanical alarm clocks, including one that would sound at any desired time. This was achieved by placing a peg into a hole on the face of the clock. Taqi al-Din was born in Syria and educated in Cairo. Similar clocks were also developed around the same time in Western Europe.
5. The Knocker-Up
The Knocker-Up (or Knocker-Upper) was a person who used a long stick with wire or a knob affixed to the end to rouse customers at a desired time. Clients would agree verbally in advance, or simply post a preferred time on doors or windows. For a few pence a week, clients could rest assured knowing their Knocker-Up would not leave until he was certain a person was awake. The role gained prominence during the Industrial Revolution. Larger factories and mills often employed their own Knocker-Ups to ensure laborers made it to work on time.
6. The Factory Whistle
Also during the Industrial revolution, when workers lived around the factory where they worked, they’d wake at the sound of the factory whistle. Steel and textile mills drew in farmers from the countryside. Time was money, but in mills and factories, time could also be regulated more easily. Work was no longer driven by the season; it was divided into units of time. It was the factory whistle, not the rising sun or the chirping birds, that called people to work.
7. Levi Hutchins’s 4 a.m. Alarm Clock
In 1787, Levi Hutchins of Concord, New Hampshire, invented another incipient alarm clock. Built into a simple pine box, a gear mechanism set off a bell. However, the bell on his clock could ring only at 4 a.m., not coincidentally the time Hutchins needed to get up for work.
A version of this article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for 2023.