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History of the Alarm Clock

The alarm attachment to a clock is a simple concept. There is often a notched cam rotating every 12 or 24 hours. A lever falls into the notch, releasing a gear train that drives a hammer which repeatedly hits a bell. The alarm may ring until the weight or spring runs down, or there may be a shut-off switch.

Mechanical clocks for the home might have been made as early as the 13th century (see Revolution in Time by David S. Landis, Belknap Press, 1983, p. 80), and it is likely that the alarm was available very early on.

The oldest alarm clock I found referenced is a German iron wall clock with a bronze bell, probably made in Nuremberg in the 15th century. This clock is 19 inches tall with open framework construction. It hung high on the wall to make room for the driving weights to fall. Alarm clocks from the 1500s are in existence. See The Clockwork Universe, German Clocks and Automata 1550 - 1650, Maurice and Mayr, 1980, Smithsonian, Neale Watson Academic Publications, New York.

The book Early English Clocks by Dawson, Drover and Parkes, Antique Collectors Club, 1982, documents some alarm clocks. An example is a lantern clock ca. 1620 that has an alarm set disc on front of the dial. One longcase (grandfather) clock ca. 1690 is documented, as is a 30 hour hanging timepiece alarm by Joseph Knibb.

English clockmakers emigrated to the United States in the 18th century and no doubt carried the idea of the alarm clock with them. It has been incorrectly stated that Levi Hutchins of Concord, New Hampshire invented the first alarm clock in 1787. His alarm clock is predated by the German and English ones mentioned above.

Simon Willard of Grafton, Massachusetts, made alarm time timepieces sometimes called “lighthouse clocks” in the 1820's. Some of the American wooden works shelf clocks of the 1820's - 30's have alarms, as do many brass movement shelf clocks after 1840.

Setting the Stage for the American "Tin Can" Alarm clock

Hubbell marine movement with 1865 patent date
30-hour "Marine" movement signed by L. (Laporte) Hubbell and bearing Hubbell's patent date of October 10, 1865. This type of movement was developed into the movement used in the top bell tin can alarm clock.
Hubbell movement showing balance and escapement
Top view showing large balance and spring, and the "ratchet tooth" type of detached lever escapement that uses a verge with solid steel pallets. The "pin pallet" escapement became popular in the 1880's, but makers such as Seth Thomas and Waterbury continued using the ratchet tooth escapement into the 20th century. Movement courtesy of Burt Kassap, photos by Kenneth Clapp.
Hubbell clock movment with alarm add-on
This represents the first evolutionary step in the development of the "tin can" alarm clock: the addition of an alarm to the marine lever timepiece movement. Here, the alarm is an "add-on" to the basic movement - notice the riveted "ear" at the bottom to hold the alarm mainwheel.
Marine movement with alarm
In this Ansonia movement, the alarm is now an integral part of the movement. (Remaining steps in the alarm clock movement evolution include making the movement closer to square for better fit in a smaller round case, switching to rear wind, and adding alarm trip wheel with stationary alarm hand and setting knob.

Seth Thomas Clock Company was granted a patent in 1876 for a small bedside alarm clock (small compared to an American wooden-cased shelf clock). This may have been the first clock of this type, or perhaps other makers were working on this idea at the same time. In the late 1870's, small alarm clocks became popular, and the major US clock companies started making them, followed by the German clock companies. The predecessor of Westclox was founded in 1885 with an improved method of small clock construction.

Westclox introduced the Chime Alarm in 1931. This clock was advertised with the slogan “First he whispers, then he shouts.”

The Westclox Moonbeam was introduced in 1949. This clock's alarm flashes a light on and off, then a buzzer sounds. Westclox now sells an excellent reproduction of the Moonbeam.

General Electric-Telechron first marketed a snooze alarm in 1956. The first Westclox Drowse (snooze) electric alarms were sold in 1959 and could be set for five (5) or ten (10) minutes snooze time.

Many interesting alarm clocks have been made over the years. There was the Tugaslugabed. This novel alarm clock would wake you by pulling your toe. When you went to bed, you would place a loop around your toe and the alarm clock would be bolted to the floor or footboard. Eight seconds before the set time, an alarm would ring and then at the set time this clock would pull hard on the loop to awake the soundest of sleepers.

The latest in high tech clocks is the internet alarm clock, which can also be used as a countdown timer or a stopwatch.

If you are interested in collecting alarm clocks, you might benefit from the Alarm Clock Chapter of the NAWCC.

Contributors: Jeffery Wood

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