Why Are Alarm Clocks Still a Thing?
Most of us carry a really easy-to-use alarm clock in our pockets, why does anyone still have one of these things?
Image: Kari Paul/Motherboard
The smartphone has already replaced basically every other form of technology in our lives. It's a music player, a GPS navigation system, a laptop, a television, a pedometer, and (when Mom calls) a telephone. So why do so many people still refrain from using one of the most basic features of their phone, the alarm clock?
For some reason, there are a lot of people who still prefer a low-tech, digital alarm clock for getting their ass out of bed in the morning.
As of last October, 90 percent of Americans had a cellphone, according to the Pew Research Center. The alarm feature is so basic, it's on every phone—even your cheapest, non-smart, generic mobile phone. They're simple to set (no holding down one button while manically mashing another to set the time, only to accidentally miss your mark by 30 minutes and have to start over). They come with a range of alarm sounds from the sinister to the supremely chill. And if you're one of the 64 percent of Americans with a smartphone, there's a buffet of additional apps you can use to customize your wakeup call to your meet your personal specifications.
So why the hell are alarm clocks still being made, let alone sold and regularly used? And, trust, they are regularly used. A 2011 survey from market research firm YouGov found that while 48 percent of respondents aged 16-34 said they used their phone as an alarm, another 38 percent said they use either a clock radio or an alarm clock. In older respondents, the number of people who preferred alarm clocks over their smartphone was even higher.
We didn't always use these archaic, fuzzy-radio-receiving, frustratingly-hard-to-set, for-some-reason-only-take-9V-batteries pieces of technology. In the ancient world, there were some pretty cool timers that may have been used to rouse people in the morning, like slowly-dripping water clocks that would cause a bell to ring after a reservoir was filled. Drinking a bunch of water before bed was, and remains, a tried and true method to make sure one doesn't oversleep, too. But the pervasive alarm clock as we know it today wasn't really in use until after the industrial revolution, according to Roger Ekirch, a sleep historian at Virginia Tech.
"Most people did not have the wherewithal, but more importantly they did not have the need, for alarm clocks, " Ekirch explained. "Sensitivity to time was not as acute before the industrial revolution so employers were more inclined to cut their employees a measure of slack."
Ekirch's research has found significant evidence that in the pre-industrial age most people in Western society went to bed around 9 or 10 pm, slept for three or four hours, woke up for an hour (to read, pray, have sex, etc), and then went back to sleep again until dawn, when they would wake up with the sunrise. But during the industrial revolution, the cultural feelings around sleep started to shift, Ekirch said. Suddenly there was more focus on being efficient and being at work at a specific time. People began to sleep in one solid stretch and rely on different methods to make sure they awoke, from having people come by to knock on the door to crazy mechanical beds that dumped their sleeper onto the floor in the morning.
By the early 1900s, mechanical alarm clocks, and the electricity needed to run them, became more affordable and widespread, Ekirch told me. By the 1930s, the kind of alarm clocks found in most modern homes pretty closely resembled the ones we still use today (minus the digital face).
For decades, it made sense that these devices were so popular. They did what they needed to do and over the years became increasingly fancy, with built-in CD players or iPod docks, the ability to set multiple alarms, and even functions that used light to wake you up instead of sound. But with the ubiquity and convenience of smartphones, how are alarm clocks still hanging around?
Ben Richmond, a contributing editor here at Motherboard, still uses the cassette-playing/radio alarm clock he's had since he was a kid as his morning wake-up call:
Ben told me he still uses the clock because it's convenient and reliable: "The alarm clock is always in the same spot," he said. "The alarm is always set (except on weekends), and it's plugged into the wall (with a 9V battery back up), so if I get home and toss my pants to the side, it's no big deal."
This was a similar explanation to the one I got from my boyfriend, who still used a clunky digital alarm clock up until a few months ago. "It was always just sitting there. I had my alarm set and could just reset it," he told me. "It was inertia, I guess."
Other clock-users' relationship with their old-school alarm actually had a lot to do with their smartphones. Emanuel Maiberg, a Motherboard contributor, told me he likes to read on his phone in bed at night, but needs his alarm to be on the other side of the room so he's forced to get out of bed to turn it off. Kari Paul, one of our youngest (and therefore hippest) contributors at 22, told me she recently went out and bought a new alarm clock to try to ease her dependence on her phone.
"I use it maybe like two or three times a week when I don't fall asleep with my phone," she told me. "The whole goal was to not sleep with my phone in my bed because I've read 800 articles about how that's bad, but I never stick to it."
Whether it's reliability, habit, or health concerns, it seems we can't quite get over our love affair with the alarm clock. There's evidence it's starting to wane in popularity; a study commissioned by Hailo found alarms were the fifth-most common use of smartphones, outpacing even phone calls. But, for now, the glowing-red-numerals of clock radios still have a tenacious grasp on our bedside tables. At least it's better than drinking a gallon of water before bed.