Where there’s smoke (alarm)… there’s fire! A Brief History of Sleep

I am a terrible sleeper. I’m really, really bad at it, and not through lack of practice. I’ve been putting in the requisite hours of training since the day I was born. By Malcolm Gladwell’s estimations, I should be a world-class snoozer by now, having easily clocked up way more than 10,000 hours of slumber. But no such luck. Since the age of 14, I’ve been a chronic insomniac destined to whittle away my nocturnal hours with books, crappy late-night movies, and the tedious torment of staring at an array of magnolia ceilings.  I have, during particularly stressful weeks, gone five days without sleep, resulting in marvellous hallucinations and/or hysterical laughter. Apparently, I once gabbled for an hour about something called a sploon – a spoon made of spleens – and then proceeded to giggle uncontrollably for two hours at a ketchup bottle. I have no recollection of such deranged joy, but I’m told there is video evidence somewhere.

Being an insomniac is a depressing existence because every night is a psychological battle with yourself. You know you won’t sleep, and yet you go to bed anyway. For the entire second half of my life – 15 long years – I would lay in the dark, staring balefully up at the ceiling and impatiently waiting for the alarm to go off.  In my stubborn head, it was only vampires, vigilante superheroes and shift workers who were permitted to shun their duvets in favour of nocturnal adventure. Sadly, I was none of these.

This may seem an odd introduction to the history of sleep, and my new book, A Million Years in a Day, but please bear with me. It’s a humorously informative romp through the social history of daily life – all the ordinary stuff we take for granted – and it features a chapter on the story of sleeping habits since the Stone Age. Did you know, for example, that archaeologists recently discovered evidence of prehistoric mattresses, woven from reeds, which date back 77,000 years? Something similar is still used in modern Japan, where the traditional tatami mat is also crafted from woven sedge, and forms the cushy flooring upon which a futon mattress is spread. Another, equally surprising modern comparison, is that our familiar modern bedsteads, and the fine cotton sheets we drape them in, were actually invented 4,000 years ago by the Ancient Egyptians.

Spending 12 hours a day researching past sleeping habits, though fascinating for a history nerd like me, became cruelly ironic when clambering wearily into my own bed, only to lie awake for hours. Thankfully, on one particular Friday night, there would be no repeat of the ‘sploon incident’. After a few bothersome hours, I finally fell asleep.

The next thing I remember was an alarm ringing in my ears.

Of course, these days there’s nothing particularly novel about automatic alarms. We have welcomed them into our bedrooms for thousands of years. Plato was allegedly forced to build one of the world’s first – a water-filled timer which noisily released lead balls onto a copper dish – when his lazy students failed to wake up in time for his lectures. But several things were amiss in this particular instance. I don’t set an alarm at the weekends; it was still pitch black outside; and the alarm’s deafening volume was uncharacteristically painful. The evidence was piling up, but I was too fatigued to decipher it. Thankfully, my quick-witted girlfriend (now wife – it takes a long time to write a book) solved the mystery.

‘Greg! Wake up! It’s the fire alarm!’

With extraordinary Hollywood reactions, she sprang heroically from the bed and began checking our flat for evidence of hidden infernos. Meanwhile, I lay still under the warm covers, blinking like a mole at the opticians. ‘Do we even have a fire alarm?’ I wondered. ‘If we don’t, we should probably get one, in case of a fire…’ Then, suddenly, my fug of confusion gave way to the terrifying clarity of blind panic.


My head filled with visions of me in my pants, clumsily clambering out of a third-storey window, while acrid smoke billowed through my bedroom. I began drawing up plans for parachuting my laptop out of the window, protected by all the pillows I could muster, but found myself distracted by the thought of ancient Egyptian and Chinese pillows which were made of solid stone, ivory or jade. Thank goodness I could wrap my laptop in soft, plump cotton. But there was no time for comparative cultural analysis – I might soon be scorched into oblivion!

My girlfriend returned to the bedroom and confidently declared we were not about to burn to a crisp. She looked at me anxiously cradling my laptop, my face etched with confusion, and she visibly shrank in disappointment. I could see her mentally noting never to rely on me in an emergency. I didn’t care, as long as we were safe – and so, more importantly, was my book. We slunk back into bed and turned out the lights.

Ten minutes later, the alarm went off again.

You might think the second time around I would react more quickly to the familiar screeching, but that would be vastly to underestimate the awesome stupidity of my early-morning brain. We silenced the alarm once more, puzzled but confident that would solve the issue, and went back to sleep. 10 minutes later, the screeching returned. Apparently, we had bought a Kafkaesque fire alarm; one intent on maintaining our safety by ensuring we never slept again. What could be done to silence this tyrannical klaxon of improbable doom? In a burst of inspiration, I decided we would take the fire alarm to bed with us and bury it under my pillow. That way, as soon as it beeped, we’d just prod the button and silence it. It was clearly a brilliant plan.

It was a terrible plan. Ten minutes later, and now partially deaf, we found ourselves googling the technical details of this particular make and model. This led us to a news article about how the same type of fire alarm had, in four separate instances, developed a fault, spontaneously self-combusted, and caused raging infernos that had destroyed whole buildings. My girlfriend suddenly looked as scared as me.

Ours was a fire alarm that caused fires…

With impeccable logic we reasoned that if there were going to be a fire, it would be better to have it in the bedroom, so we could feel its heat on our faces. Far better to be awoke by flames than slowly suffocating to death due to toxic smoke drifting in from the kitchen. And that is why – for three whole days, until the fire brigade replaced it – we came to keep our fire alarm in a large saucepan on our bedside table, the two of us nervously going to bed each night with the constant fear that, at any point, it might suddenly explode into flames.

Looking back, we were probably in no danger at all; it’s only a tiny, tiny percentage of these fire alarms which have failed so dangerously. Yet it’s frankly embarrassing how willing we both were to risk death, just for an extra two hours of kip on a Saturday morning. We could have dumped the alarm in the garden, stored it in a bucket of sand, or phoned the fire brigade for advice. But no! Instead we put the potentially incendiary device 2 metres from our heads, and started snoozing.

This, I think, is the fascinating thing about sleep; every human on the planet needs it – the average person may expect to snooze for 30 per cent of their lives, racking up 250,000 hours of unconscious repose – and we will even endanger ourselves to get it. When the nomadic tribes of East Africa see the sun dip behind the horizon, they can hear the lions and elephants nearby, but they still bed down, hoping that the meagre flames of a gently smouldering fire will be enough to scare off the beasts that could so easily munch, or crush, their defenceless bodies. They know the risks can be fatal, but like me and my girlfriend, they desperately need a little shut-eye, and are willing to gamble on it.

Such is the importance of sleep in human history, and it’s no wonder we find evidence of beds extending all the way back into the distant Stone Age. What I find so intriguing is that every society and generation since then has had to contend with this same problem – no amount of technological ingenuity can solve our human need for a refreshing kip. Our sleeping habits may seem an obvious example, but what I found so interesting while writing my book was just how much of our ancestors’ lives resemble our own, despite all the techno wizardry with which we surround ourselves. Every generation embraces new ideas and customs, and we might outwardly appear different, but ultimately our human qualities and needs have remained the same no matter where we end up in history.


2 thoughts on “Where there’s smoke (alarm)… there’s fire! A Brief History of Sleep

  1. Anne Wood

    Mr.Greg Jenner, you have to be the best writer ever! I could read your blogs all day. Looking forward to reading your new book. Xxx

  2. Bec

    I can imagine the look on kate’s face as she walks back in to find you cradling your laptop. The problem is ,while this vivid image jumps into my mind and makes me laugh out loud, i am sat on a busier commuter train destined for London!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. The Name, Email and Comment fields are required