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June 14, 2024 6 mins

We all have to regularly be somewhere on time. But what did people do before cell phone alarms or even alarm clocks? Animals, body cues, and knocker-uppers were just a few of the methods.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Okay, what do hormones, half a gallon of water, and
knocker uppers have in common? Well, it all had to
do with something every single one of us do every day.
I'm Patty Steele. Rise and shine and make it snappy, sleepyhead.
That's next on the backstory. The backstory is back, all right.

(00:22):
Most of us have to get up at certain set
times to go somewhere right, work, school appointments, events. We
let our phones give us the wake up call. And
some folks still use an alarm clock. But here's the thing.
The first working mechanical alarm clock only got patented in
eighteen seventy six. Does that mean that nobody had to

(00:43):
be anywhere on time before one hundred and fifty years ago.
That's an excellent question. Now, in fairness, there was less
emphasis on being on time before that. But two things
changed the way we use time, and as always, that
inspired an invention, in this case alarm clocks. Now, the
first change was the advent of shift work during the

(01:05):
Industrial Age. Up to that point, most people worked on farms.
They either owned one or they worked for somebody else
that owned one. They woke up with the daylight, roosters crowing,
sheep and pigs calling to be fed, and cows fed
and milked. But once factories kicked into high gear, they
needed a lot of people to work various shifts around

(01:26):
the clock, and those people needed to be on time. Now.
In addition to that, around the same period with the
arrival of trains, there was the arrival of train schedules,
so you needed to know what time the train was
getting in sort of exactly and when it was leaving.
And that meant folks had to make sure they were
aware of time in a much more exacting modern way,

(01:49):
thus the invention of the alarm clock. But that's not
all there is to it. Previous to that, people still
had to wake up on time for all kinds of reasons.
Early on, keeping track of time was always about our
tie to the natural world, and a little bit later
on maybe church bells, farmers were dawned to dusk, store

(02:10):
owners opened up when they arrived, and if kids went
to school, there was a school bell. Lots of times
bells were wrong to tell folks it was time to
get ready and again when it was time to head out.
None of that was exact, though, But first of all,
humans were just much more in touch with their circadian
rhythms than we are today. They paid attention when their

(02:31):
bodies said it's time to eat, time to sleep, time
to wake up. When they woke up after just several
hours of sleep, they would get stuff done and then
maybe a few hours later, go back to sleep until daylight.
That was segmented sleep, and nobody felt stressed out or
guilty about it. But there were always some pretty ingenious

(02:51):
ways of waking up going back hundreds even thousands of years,
when you simply had to get up. The klepsydra or
water c was turned into an early alarm clock almost
twenty five hundred years ago. It was a vessel filled
with water that slowly dripped out with a hollow metal

(03:11):
ball floating inside. When the water dripped low enough, the
ball hit another piece of metal and that sounded an alarm.
Another method for waking up totally used our bodies as
the alarm. Early man drank tons of water if he
needed to wake up before the sun. Why well, duh.
The call of nature was a natural alarm. You have

(03:34):
to get up to pee, right, and they knew exactly
how much they had to drink to get up at
a certain time. Actually, the custom of over drinking, as
they sort of called it, before bed was even used
by Native Americans right into the twentieth century. Warriors would
figure out in advance what time they needed to wake up,

(03:55):
and then they would regulate the exact amount of water
to drink before going to bed, and that would tell
them when they had to get up. Another method for
being awakened on time involved candle clocks. These started in
ancient China. They were candles embedded with nails. They knew
how long it would take the candle to burn down

(04:16):
to certain levels, so as the wax melted away, the
nails were released and would clatter onto a metal tray
below for that all important wake up call. And Finally,
as folks began working outside the house more often including
it jobs like factory shift work, there were people who
made a living going door to door waking folks up.

(04:38):
Knocker uppers. These were guys who carried long sticks which
they used to tap on somebody's window or run it
down their shutters until the sleeper woke up. Some knocker
uppers even used straws through which they would shoot dried
peas at their client's windows. Interestingly, there were still knocker
Uppers in England as recently as the nineteen seventies. You

(05:10):
know what I love about all of this. It tells
you something about the human experience. Stuff needs to get
done and we figure out how to do it based
on the tools at hand. In the thousands, even millions
of years of human history, we had to make do
with our own or sometimes other people's ingenuity in order
to improve our experience. So if you like to watch

(05:32):
those apocalyptic stories and you worry about the grid shutting down,
just know we can handle it. But maybe we're going
to have to bring back the knocker Uppers right, might
need a waker up er from your knocker upper. Hope
you're liking the Backstory with Patty Steele. I would love

(05:54):
it if you would subscribe or follow for free to
get new episodes delivered automatic, and feel free to dm
me if you have a story you'd like me to cover.
On Facebook, It's Patty Steele and on Instagram Reel Patty Steele.
I'm Patty Steele. The Backstories a production of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks,

(06:15):
the Elvis Durand Group and Steel Trap Productions. Our producer
is Doug Fraser. Our writer Jake Kushner. We have new
episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Feel free to reach out
to me with comments and even story suggestions on Instagram
at real Patty Steele and on Facebook at Patty Steele.
Thanks for listening to the Backstory with Patty Steele, the

(06:36):
pieces of history you didn't know you needed to know.
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