Tag Archives: time

Wakey wakey: a history of alarm clocks and the mechanics of time


Matthew S. Champion, Australian Catholic University

It’s the time of year when we Australians start returning to our normal rhythms. The first beats of the day are often the dreaded beeps of the alarm clock 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: from the watchmen on ancient city walls waiting for the dawn to more recent clocks on wheels that have to be chased to stop ringing.

The job of waking us up when our body clocks are telling us to sleep is a big ask. When did we first start using alarms, and what did they sound like? What’s changed about the sounds of time, and what hasn’t?


Some of the earliest words we have for time measurement show people’s particular interest in dividing up the different parts of the night.

In the pre-modern world, without electric lights and electric alarms, people paid more attention to the quality of light and the sounds around them. A rich vocabulary emerged in ancient languages for the different parts of the night. One early Latin word for the time before dawn was gallicinium, the time of the cock’s crow. Scientists have since discovered roosters really do know what time that is.

Rooster crowing outdoors
‘Cocker-doodle-doo!’ Pre-modern night was divided into multiple segments, and the time before dawn was named for the cock’s crow.

Birdsong remains an important way of experiencing waking up. In Australia, we often evoke birdsong when we think about sleep and waking — from morning caroling magpies, to the versatile currawong or the midnight call of willie wagtails. Less melodic, though equally striking, is another possible bird noise associated with early rising — “sparrow’s fart” — first attested to in the 19th century.

Read more:
Birdsong has inspired humans for centuries: is it music?

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 sonically striking examples, with various versions marking out differences between traditions and regions. The melismatic chant — 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 early-morning calls were combined with weather forecasting systems. In the 15th century the town criers of the port of Sandwich on the south coast of England would call out the wind changes in the night so seafarers would know when favourable (or unfavourable) winds sprang up. Much later, in some parts of the industrial world, professional knocker-uppers might use a pea shooter or stick to tap on windows to wake you up for your shift.

Having humans wake you up would usually mean someone has to stay up all night. But how would that person know when to cry the alarm? Sundials would obviously be useless. This is one reason technologies developed to count the hours of night — ancient and medieval water clocks with markings to show how water flow corresponded to time passing, and later (from around the 14th century) sand glasses in the familiar hourglass shape.

man taps on window
That’s service. Professional knocker uppers used to wake workers.
Wikimedia Commons/Nationaal Archief

Mechanical clocks

The Middle Ages saw one of our most amazing inventions — mechanical clocks, originally driven by weights. Gravity pulled suspended weights down to drive the clock mechanism. The weights were periodically wound back up for another cycle.

These clocks began as large objects in churches and town belfries. Some had elaborate automata: the extraordinary 16th-century Strasbourg clock includes a famous cockerel whose cries echo through the cathedral. Its automated rooster is from an earlier clock made in the 14th century.

Ancient cathedral clock
The astronomical clock in Cathedral Notre Dame, Strasbourg, Alsace.

Some large clocks played music on bells before striking the hours. This year is the 700th anniversary of what may be the first such musical clock, installed in a monastery near Rouen in 1321. It played a hymn, Conditor alme siderum (Dear Creator of the Stars), for the season of Advent that starts the Christian year.

Such 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 of dealing with waking up to sing their prayers in the night — even better if that wake-up call, like the adhan, was a pious prayer itself.

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Acedia: the lost name for the emotion we’re all feeling right now

The modern alarm clock

The earliest versions of the clocks we know today were made for large communities, public spaces or courtly elites.

clock on wheels
The ‘clocky’ alarm clock on wheels requires the waker to chase it.

Gradually though, and certainly by the mid to late 15th century, you could find heavy iron wall clocks in private houses (made in places still famous for clockmaking, such as Switzerland). These often had pins that you could place around the clock face to set the bell ringing at a particular time. These house alarm clocks could wake the owner to work and pray.

It was during this period, too, that compact spring mechanisms made smaller and smaller personal watches possible, carried or worn on the body from the 16th century.

The personalisation of time accelerated in the 19th century and gave rise to some wild modern alarm clocks. Among the more striking inventions of the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin was a clock that lit a candle after the alarm sounded.

Read more:
Morning haze: why it’s time to stop hitting the snooze button

Though nothing has reached the sophistication of the breakfast-making Rube-Goldberg-style alarm clocks seen on The Goodies, automaton clock alarms have promised freshly made coffee and toast or even just their aroma. Here the familiar sounds of the kitchen, with their enticing morning smells, soften the rude awakening from sleep.

Today’s alarms, with all their invention, come as a gift (or depending on how much you enjoy waking up, a curse) from the Middle Ages to us today.The Conversation

iPhone clock icon
The iPhone can do a lot of things, but it cannot make toast.
Brett Jordan on Unsplash, CC BY

Matthew S. Champion, Senior Research Fellow in Medieval Studies, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Disease evolution: the origins of anorexia and how it’s shaped by culture and time

Dominic Murphy, University of Sydney

There are fashions in diseases, as in anything else. It’s understandable that a new, infectious and life-threatening malady could preoccupy us, such as cholera in the 19th century or Ebola in recent times.

It is harder to see why a panic erupts around a diagnosis that’s a century old, but a telegenic celebrity death can help. When the singer Karen Carpenter died aged 32 in 1983, her heart gave out because of complications due to anorexia. Her death is widely credited with pushing eating disorders into the public consciousness.

Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Richard Nixon in 1972.
Robert Leroy Knudsen, CC BY

Karen Carpenter was not the first famous young woman to starve to death. Sarah Jacob, “the Welsh Fasting Girl”, was once a national craze across Britain. She died at her parents’ farm in December 1869 in front of a team of nurses who had been sent from London to Carmathenshire to monitor her.

Sarah was believed by her family and her local clergyman to eat nothing at all. Her parents agreed to have her watched to make sure she was not secretly eating, but their faith in her was strong enough that they refused to have her force-fed.

The Welsh Fasting Girl was a national craze in the 19th century.
Wellcome Trust

As with other fasting girls, her alleged ability to live without food was taken by her supporters as a sign of special spiritual status, and seen by materialist physicians as evidence of hysteria and deceit.

Did Sarah Jacob, like Karen Carpenter, die of anorexia?

The diagnostic label “anorexia nervosa” was not coined until shortly after Sarah Jacob died, but of course a disease can exist prior to being named. She did not have all the symptoms associated with the modern diagnosis, but most mental disorders vary from patient to patient.

Anorexia is often seen as an expression of will – an assertion of autonomy and control by a young woman who is engaged in a battle with her family and therapists. If that’s the crucial point about anorexia then maybe Sarah Jacob was anorexic. Her fast turned her whole domestic world upside down and she maintained it right to the end.

In her 1988 history of anorexia, Fasting Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, noting the presence of the medical team watching in her room, asserted that Sarah was “killed by experimental design”. But maybe she died of pride.

If the assertion of will, over both one’s own appetite and the authority of others, is the heart of anorexia, then perhaps we can push its history back further. In Holy Anorexia (1985), Rudolph Bell argued that anorexia shaped the lives of many medieval saints and other holy women, who ate next to nothing.

Was Saint Catherine of Siena anorexic?
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted for days, far beyond what was expected of even the most pious young women in 14th-century Italy. She did so even when the male priests she was supposed to defer to expressly told her to eat something, on the grounds that her spiritual husband, Jesus himself, outranked them.

For Bell, it is Catherine’s assertion of her will – she sent angry letters to the Pope – that marks her out and puts her in a long line of anorexics extending to the present day.

Brumberg attacks Bell for assuming that female psychology has not changed over the centuries and that the past and present are the same.

But that’s unfair. It is certainly possible to acknowledge that both psychology and culture have changed dramatically over the years while also thinking that two people share enough relevant symptoms and personality features to justify applying the same diagnostic label to them both even if they lived centuries apart.

But obviously not just any remote similarity is enough, so how can we decide?

Archaeologists can find on ancient skeletons the traces of familiar diseases, but there is no physical marker to point to that would decide whether a mental illness was present in the middle ages.

Clearly, young women (and men) have been dramatically restricting their calorie intake for centuries, but not all the symptoms of modern anorexia have always been present, and some saintly behaviours are no longer associated with eating disorders.

Similarly, melancholy has a very long history, and many scholars see modern depression as essentially the same thing.

But modern clinical depression has dropped the distinction between melancholy, which has no obvious cause, and ordinary sadness, which is a reasonable response to the tragedies of life. “Depression” pathologises parts of our mental life that “melancholy” treated as normal – is it the same disease, or not?

Over the centuries our brains have been sculpted by our cultural selection.

Well, if you think mental illness is above all a problem with a neurological system, then there might seem to be an easy answer. The disease label refers to what is going wrong within your brain, and the cultural context just supplies the input and output.

Take an anorexic brain and plug it into 14th-century Italy and you get one set of symptoms. Plug it into modern Western societies and you get another. The different symptoms are reflections of different cultures acting on the brain.

Joel and Ian Gold, in Suspicious Minds, have discussed the emergence of what they consider to be a new form of psychopathology – the “Truman Show delusion” – in which, like the hero of the movie of that name, subjects imagine themselves as the star of a reality TV show. The existence of the show is known but kept secret by their friends.

The Golds argue that the delusion was caused by the rise of new forms of media and an attendant loss of privacy. It’s what you get when a paranoid brain deals with the contemporary social world, whereas perhaps a few hundred years ago these subjects would have been afraid of witches, not TV producers.

It’s a simple picture, and the brain-based concept of mental illness has great power. But culture shapes the brain in ways that makes the simple opposition too stark – London taxi drivers have extra-large hippocampuses, which have grown from use (it keeps a mental map of your surroundings) like the muscles of an athlete.

London taxi drivers have extra-large hippocampuses.
martinvarsavsky/Flickr, CC BY

Over the centuries our brains have been sculpted by our cultural selection just as by natural selection, and mental illness has been shaped accordingly.

At different times, different aspects of a syndrome will predominate, to be succeeded by others as the culture shifts. Historians need to argue about how to apply the labels, but the history of human society is reflected in the ways our minds go wrong.

This is the second instalment in our disease evolution package. Click here to read the first: Disease evolution: our long history of fighting viruses.

The Conversation

Dominic Murphy, Director, Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Time Off

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