With the exception of zombies and sleepwalkers, who are surprisingly proactive with their subconscious lurching, almost every day in our life must first begin with the simple achievement of waking up. Biological processes aside, going from a state of slumber to a state of alertness is wonderfully simple; you set your alarm clock, go to sleep, and are awoken at the appointed hour by your trusty gadget. Easy.
But that’s the extraordinary distinction of the 21st century. So many solutions have already been put in place to ease us gently through life that it’s often hard to imagine what complex daily struggles were endured in the past. When we set an alarm there’s almost zero effort involved – most of us rely on sophisticated electronic gadgets that effortlessly set themselves, operating from a simple set of digital instructions punched in an evening, week or even a year ago. Our only job is merely to ensure the clocks are plugged in or sufficiently charged before we go to bed praying to the pagan gods that there is no power cut, or bungled software upgrade, to render the bloody thing useless in the morning.
Around the house, or strapped to our wrists, we may still choose to mount mechanical clocks to alert us to the time, but we may do so for aesthetic reasons of taste and tradition. As elegantly crafted as a mechanical clock may be, it may now seem low-tech. Yet, these finely-balanced assemblages of cogs and wheels were once technological marvels in the 17th century, being intricate improvements upon sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, and, the most basic of all, squinting uncomfortably at the sun like Crocodile Dundee.
The conceptual understanding of time has frequently been shaped by the technical limitations of the gadgets one measures it with, and in the past our ancestors lived their lives based on temporal systems unfamiliar to our modern minds. While we are accustomed to standardised units – hours, minutes, seconds, days, weeks, months, years – the history of timekeeping is like a David Lynch movie; strangely fascinating and, at times, utterly confusing. Medieval Christians had their days regulated by the Canonical hours of prayer, while Ancient Egyptians – who told the time with sundials and star charts – had longer hours in the summer than in the winter. Indeed, a 60 minute hour wasn’t even invented until the 14th century.
So how did people know when to get up?
In the cartoons of my youth, it was usually a vociferous rooster that startled humans out of their cosy slumber. I always found this rather odd, as the only chickens in my vicinity were frozen in cellophane or coated in breadcrumbs. However, these days I am often awoken in the summer at 5am by a gaggle of songbirds that have annoyingly learned to boost their volume in order to compete with lawnmowers and passing traffic. While it’s nice to see nature thriving, it would be nicer still if it could thrive after 9am. Clearly, then, wildlife functioned as a useful alarm clock in the past (though it wasn’t quite sufficient to rouse the lazy students of the Greek philosopher Plato, who built his own alarm clock 2,400 years ago).
Why does the dawn herald this chattering chorus? Well, both animals and humans have inbuilt biological clocks – snappily dubbed circadian rhythms – hardwired to respond perkily to blue wavelengths of light, which suppress the production of a sleep hormone called melatonin. Rather usefully, our planet orbits a huge cosmic fireball which chucks out lots of this bluish light, so when the day turns to night, and those wavelengths vanish, we naturally get drowsy. So, in theory the dawn awakens us all and the darkness makes us sleepy. But we are the modern exception and have shoved our bedtimes further around the clock-face through the usage of artificial lighting at night, and heavy curtains to shield us from the early sunlight. To confuse us even further, our laptops, smartphones and TV screens replicate the sun’s light wavelengths, and drive many of us into bleary-eyed insomnia.
Many of us therefore keep the most irregular of hours. But for most of human history our ancestors rose in tandem with the sun, either because it shone directly into their faces or because it woke the roosters, cows, dogs, and geese in the back garden. This meant they also went to sleep much earlier, perhaps as early as 6pm in the winter, but evidence from the Middle Ages shows their sleep patterns were not like our own. Medieval people appear to have slept in two blocks of 4 hours, with a bit of midnight activity sandwiched in between. Intriguingly, this is how our brain is naturally wired, but we ignore it in favour of a solid 8 hour snooze stretch. Perhaps one day scientists will advise us to get up at 3am and do our taxes, as Mother Nature intended?
IF YOU FOUND THIS INTERESTING, CHECK OUT GREG’S BOOK FOR MORE FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT THE HISTORY OF TIMEKEEPING AND CLOCKS