My family loves your weekly column and we’ve long wanted to find a question that even you could not answer. Finally, after many dinner conversations, we came across a question that none of us knew the answer to. How did humans wake themselves up before the invention of the alarm clock? My family has several theories, our youngest thinking ninjas were somehow involved, but the consensus was that there was no need for alarm clocks and therefore they hadn’t been invented yet.
Dear Clock Conundrum,
I must say, I’ve long waited for a challenge in the form of a question I could not easily answer. However, my knowledge base is substantial and I make sure to read each and every day so my brain can gather more ‘useless’ knowledge. From a zombie apocalypse created in a lab, to an alien invasion come down from space, I hope to store enough data to someday save the entire human population from extinction.
Today is that day, Sir!
Now, while that was just a bit dramatic, can you honestly say you expected any less from me?! This alarm clock situation was quite problematic for early humans and I’m determined to treat it with the proper level of gravitas. Imagine the horror early Homo sapiens must have felt when they awakened mid-day only to discover that their entire family had been murdered in their cave because no one awakened at dawn to keep watch. Everyone knows the mighty man eaters of that time period were most likely to hunt in the cool hours between midnight and sunrise. Vigilance on the part of the human was the key to survival.
These primitive Homo sapiens deployed a clever technique to awaken on time – peeing.
Yes, you read that correctly! Early man would fill up on water just before going to sleep. Within a few hours, their bladders would awaken them in a desperate bid for relief. The first person to rise would keep watch over the cave and ensure no one was eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. It was also this person’s responsibility to wake the person tasked with breakfast preparation. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, no matter what time period you live in.
Although it was effective, this method of alarm clock also had its drawbacks.
Need I go into graphic detail about what happens when an overly full bladder meets an extremely tired human who has spent many long hours hunting and gathering in the hot sun? You guessed it, pee pee on the clothing. While not exactly a pleasure today, early man had no washing machines at their disposal. That cave would become mighty aromatic in a hurry. Obviously, humans needed a better solution to waking themselves up.
Luckily, the water clock was invented by an enterprising group of ancient Egyptians.
This clock was brilliant, at least for the time it was created. Using a series of bowls, water dripped out at a constant rate and filled up other bowls that had markings on them. Yada, yada, yada, someone who was trained to read the bowls would alert everyone to the correct time. This is where the water clock gets tricky. Since there were no audible alarms on the water clock, the ancient Egyptians turned to a simple device – their beloved felines. Every night a feline was placed into a bowl to sleep – this bowl corresponded to the time the humans of the household needed to wake. When the water overflowed onto the feline, it would awaken with a ghoulish yowl and claw the face of the human who slept nearest to the clock.
While sufficient, this alarm clock was extremely painful.
There was also one other critical drawback to the water clock. Imagine listening, night after night, to the constant dripping of water from one bowl to another. Drip. Snore. Drip, drip. Snort. Drip, drip, drip… pee. Again, the human bladder was no match for the timepiece they had invented and the launderers eventually went on strike. Humanity knew there had to be a better way.
After a millennia testing out numerous inventions, humans created the mechanical clock.
With none of the odorous side effects of its predecessors, the mechanical clock seemed to be a dream come true for humanity. With a simple twist of a gear, the clock would keep accurate time without fail. Since these were costly devices, they were placed in religious houses that had a very effective system for waking the masses in a city – the bell tower. In order to ensure all townspeople were awakened at the time they needed to be, the bell tower would ring every hour.
Every. Single. Hour. Every. Single. Day.
I’m sure you can imagine what happened next, but just in case, allow me to paint a picture for you. A night worker has spent the last 12 hours guarding the village from attack by bandits. Exhausted, he climbs into bed at dawn to catch a few hours of sleep. Carts roll past the window, cows are herded in a noisy group, farmers yell out to one another as they pass by. The exhausted soldier continues to feign sleep, knowing these sounds will fade as people move into the surrounding countryside for work. Then, just as the soldier is about to fall into a deep slumber, the bell tower belts out a deep bellow. Tolling six times, the soldier grits his teeth and tries again to fall asleep. At the start of a dream, the soldier is again awakened by the tolling, seven this time. The bell continues this onslaught, tolling as many as 12 times in a row! The soldier finally loses his sanity and burns down the bell tower.
The monks were so upset, they vowed to never tell time again!
Thus the invention of the modern alarm clock. Each person was able to set their own device, allowing their neighbors to sleep in peace. Bakers could wake in the pre-dawn hours, while the farmers could catch a few more hours of solid sack time. Mothers everywhere could rejoice that they no longer had cranky humans to look after for the day.
There was just one catch to this beneficial invention – marriages began to disintegrate.
Husband and wife would quarrel each night as they attempted to agree on what time they should wake. Sadly, this is a problem that still exists hundreds of years later. There’s no telling how many couples have called it quits when faced with overwhelming exhaustion, but I suspect the number to be in the millions. While the solution is simple and practical – marry someone who wakes at the same time – humans continue to partner where there is an emotional attachment.
The madness won’t end until alarm clocks are implanted in the brain.Tweet
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One thought on “Dear Lola – A brief walk through the history of time…”
Omigosh that is so interesting!! You truly are a font of info!! Thanks!
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