Alarming developments

I’m writing this on January 2, which means that, for more days than not over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to sleep in. But today, at 6:40 a.m., the alarm clock went off, and I staggered out of bed, a stumbling, half-blind example of the effects of sleep inertia (not that having a proper name to apply to my condition did a thing to alleviate it).

Drawing my inspiration from life as I am wont to do, I decided to kick off the new year by exploring the technology that kicked off the new year: the alarm clock.

Alarm mechanisms came along not long after the first mechanical clocks (large ornamental things) were built in the 14th century, and as clocks moved into households (where they were common by the 17th century) alarm mechanisms came with them.

However, no one seems to have thought of creating a clock specifically designed to wake people up until 1787, when Levi Hutchins of Concord, New Hampshire, invented a mechanical alarm clock. You couldn’t exactly call it practical, though: it could only ring at 4 a.m.–the time at which Hutchins had to get up for his job.

French inventor Antoine Redier patented the first adjustable mechanical alarm clock in 1847, but the small mechanical wind-up clock patented in the U.S. by Seth E. Thomas on October 24, 1876, had a greater impact. Soon all the major U.S. clockmakers were making small alarm clocks, and the German clockmakers followed suit.

Clockmakers set about making their clocks stand out in a crowded field. Hence you got Westclox’s progressive Chime Alarm in 1931 (“First he whispers, then he shouts”), and its Moonbeam in 1949, which flashed a light on and off before sounding the buzzer.

Bulova claims to have invented the first clock radio in 1928, but others claim Telechron’s “Musalarm” was the first in 1945. Whichever, people were soon waking up to the sound of music. (In 1953 the Washington Post ran an article entitled, “Do You Need a Clock Radio?”)

A major advance (or possibly retreat) in alarm clock technology came in 1956, when General Electric-Telechron marketed the first snooze alarm.

For a few years, the main focus of alarm clock design seemed to be coming up with goofier and goofier cases to put them in (i.e., an alarm clock built into a replica of Darth Vader’s helmet).

Recent innovations have ranged from the inspired to the wacky. On the inspired side, I’ve been tempted myself to forego Sheila Coles‘s dulcet tones on dark winter mornings for a sunrise simulator: a clock that wakes you by beginning to glow some time before you need to awake, getting brighter and brighter until it fully illuminates the room.

On the wacky side, consider the Sfera: a prototype alarm clock which hangs above your head. You have to reach up and tap it to activate the snooze function. Every time you do, Sfera rises further toward the ceiling. Eventually you’re standing in your bed to turn off the alarm, at which point you might as well hit the shower.

The notion of an alarm clock that actively avoids your snooze-seeking touch seems to be popular with inventors everywhere right now–hence Clocky.

Clocky beeps when its alarm goes off. You get one chance to snooze, but if you don’t get up and turn of Clocky properly, Clocky starts beeping again and runs away, rolling forward off your nightstand (the manufacturer warns: “Do not place higher than 2 feet!”) and then moving around for 30 seconds in different directions. To turn it off properly, you have to get out of bed and find it, and if crawling around on your cold bedroom floor in the dark cursing the day you ever thought buying a Clocky was a cute idea doesn’t wake you up, nothing will.

Created by Gauri Nanda, a research associate at the MIT Media Laboratory in Cambridge, Clocky’s design hit the Internet in 2005 and sparked an explosion of interest. In response, Nanda formed a company (called Nanda, naturally) to produce Clocky–and has sold thousands of them.

Clocky is the only run-away clock actually available at the moment, but with its success, just give it time. Soon you may be able to buy the Blowfly, which doesn’t just roll away–it powers up its little helicopter rotors and buzzes around the room.

A stronger argument for the inadvisability of keeping a gun in your bedroom I’ve never heard.

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