An alarm clock (or sometimes just an alarm) is a clock that is designed to alert an individual or group of individuals at specified time. The primary function of these clocks is to awaken people from their night's sleep or short naps; they are sometimes used for other reminders as well. Most use sound; some use light or vibration. Some have sensors to identify when a person is in a light stage of sleep, in order to avoid waking someone who is deeply asleep, which causes tiredness, even if the person has had adequate sleep. To stop the sound or light, a button or handle on the clock is pressed; most clocks automatically stop the alarm if left unattended long enough. A classic analog alarm clock has an extra hand or inset dial that is used to specify the time at which to activate the alarm. Alarm clocks are also found on mobile phones and watches.
Traditional mechanical alarm clocks have one or two bells that ring by means of a mainspring that powers a gear to propel a hammer back and forth between the two bells or between the interior sides of a single bell. In some models, the back encasement of the clock itself acts as the bell. In an electric bell-style alarm clock, the bell is rung by an electromagnetic circuit and armature that turns the circuit on and off repeatedly.
Digital alarm clocks can make other noises. Simple battery-powered alarm clocks make a loud buzzing or beeping sound to wake a sleeper, while novelty alarm clocks can speak, laugh, sing, or play sounds from nature.
Some alarm clocks have radios that can be set to start playing at specified times, and are known as clock radios. Some alarm clocks can set multiple alarms, a useful feature for couples who have different waking up schedules. A progressive alarm clock, still new in the market, can have different alarms for different times (see Next-Generation Alarms) and even play music of your choice. Most modern televisions, mobile phones and digital watches have alarm clock functions to turn on or make sounds at a specific time.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 BC) was said to possess a large water clock with an unspecified alarm signal similar to the sound of a water organ; he used it at night, possibly for signaling the beginning of his lectures at dawn (Athenaeus 4.174c). The Hellenistic engineer and inventor Ctesibius (fl. 285–222 BC) fitted his clepsydras with dial and pointer for indicating the time, and added elaborate "alarm systems, which could be made to drop pebbles on a gong, or blow trumpets (by forcing bell-jars down into water and taking the compressed air through a beating reed) at pre-set times" (Vitruv 11.11).
The late Roman senator Cassiodorus (c. 485–585) advocated in his rulebook for monastic life the water clock as a useful alarm for the 'soldiers of Christ' (Cassiod. Inst. 30.4 f.). The Christian rhetorician Procopius described in detail prior to 529 a complex public striking clock in his home town Gaza which featured an hourly gong and figures moving mechanically day and night.
In China, a striking clock was devised by the Buddhist monk and inventor Yi Xing (683–727). The Chinese engineers Zhang Sixun and Su Song integrated striking clock mechanisms in astronomical clocks in the 10th and 11th centuries, respectively. A striking clock outside of China was the water-powered clock tower near the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, which struck once every hour. It was constructed by the Arab engineer al-Kaysarani in 1154. In 1235, an early monumental water-powered alarm clock that "announced the appointed hours of prayer and the time both by day and by night" was completed in the entrance hall of the Mustansiriya Madrasah in Baghdad.
From the 14th century, some clock towers in Western Europe were also capable of chiming at a fixed time every day; the earliest of these was described by the Florentine writer Dante Alighieri in 1319. The most famous original striking clock tower still standing is possibly the one in St Mark's Clocktower in St Mark's Square, Venice. The St Mark's Clock was assembled in 1493, by the famous clockmaker Gian Carlo Rainieri from Reggio Emilia, where his father Gian Paolo Rainieri had already constructed another famous device in 1481. In 1497, Simone Campanato moulded the great bell (h. 1,56 m., diameter m. 1,27), which was put on the top of the tower where it was alternatively beaten by the Due Mori (Two Moors), two bronze statues (h. 2,60) handling a hammer.
User-settable mechanical alarm clocks date back at least to 15th-century Europe. These early alarm clocks had a ring of holes in the clock dial and were set by placing a pin in the appropriate hole.
Another mechanical alarm clock was created by Levi Hutchins, of New Hampshire in the United States, in 1787. This device he made only for himself however, and it only rang at 4 AM, in order to wake him for his job.
The French inventor Antoine Redier was the first to patent an adjustable mechanical alarm clock, in 1847.
Alarm clocks, like almost all other consumer goods in the United States, ceased production in the spring of 1942, as the factories which made them were converted over to war work during World War II, but they were one of the first consumer items to resume manufacture for civilian use, in November 1944. By that time, a critical shortage of alarm clocks had developed due to older clocks wearing out or breaking down. Workers were late for, or missed completely, their scheduled shifts in jobs critical to the war effort. In a pooling arrangement overseen by the Office of Price Administration, several clock companies were allowed to start producing new clocks, some of which were continuations of pre-war designs, and some of which were new designs, thus becoming among the first "postwar" consumer goods to be made, before the war had even ended. The price of these "emergency" clocks was, however, still strictly regulated by the Office of Price Administration.
The first radio alarm clock was invented by James F. Reynolds, in the 1940s and another design was also invented by Paul L. Schroth Sr.
A clock radio is an alarm clock and an AM/FM radio integrated in one device. They are integrated so that the radio's sound may be used as an alarm. This allows the sleeper to be awakened by radio music/news or a buzzer sound. They are typically placed on the bedside stand. They offer dual alarm and "snooze", a large button on the top that stops the alarm and sets it to ring again at a short time later, most commonly nine minutes. Some clock radios also have a "sleep" timer, which turns the music from radio on for a set amount of time (usually around one hour). This is useful for people who like to fall asleep with the radio on.
In addition to radio, recent clock radios have other music sources such as iPod, iPhone, and/or audio CD. When the alarm is triggered, it can play a set radio station or the music from a selected music source to awaken the sleeper. These models usually come with a dock for iPod/iPhone that also charges the device while it is docked. They can play FM/AM radio, iPod/iPhone or CD like a typical music player as well (without being triggered by the alarm function). A few popular models offer "nature sounds" like rain, forest, fire, sea, waterfall etc., in place of the buzzer.
Clock radios are powered by AC power from the wall socket. In the event of a power interruption, older models used to reset the time to midnight (00:00) and lose alarm settings. This would cause failure to trigger the alarm even if the power is restored. To solve this issue, they trigger the alarm at 00:01 after a reset, so that at least the user is able to correct the clock and alarm settings. Most of the recent clock radios use a battery backup to maintain the time and alarm settings. Some advanced radio clocks (not to be confused with clocks with AM/FM radios) have a feature which sets the time automatically using signals from atomic clock-synced time signal radio stations such as WWV, making the clock accurate and immune to time reset due to power interruptions.
A mid-1970s digital alarm clock radio (AM/FM) using split-flap display.
Other alarm signals
The deaf and hard of hearing are often unable to perceive auditory alarms when asleep. They may use specialized alarms, including alarms with flashing lights instead of or in addition to noise. Alarms which can connect to vibrating devices (small ones inserted into pillows, or larger ones placed under bedposts to shake the bed) also exist.
Alarm clock software programs have been developed for personal computers. A computer acting as an alarm clock may allow a virtually unlimited number of alarm times (i.e. Personal information manager) and personalized tones. Online alarm clocks are also available through the use of different websites, e.g. sensorwake.
Mobile phone alarms
Many modern mobile phones feature built-in alarm clocks that do not need the phone to be switched on for the alarm to ring off. Some of these mobile phones feature the ability for the user to set the alarm's ringtone, and in some cases music can be downloaded to the phone and then chosen to play for waking.
Scientific studies on sleep having shown that sleep stage at awakening is an important factor in amplifying sleep inertia. Alarm clocks involving sleep stage monitoring appeared on the market in 2005. Using sensing technologies such as EEG electrodes or accelerometers, these alarm clocks are supposed to wake people only from light sleep. Dawn simulators are another technology meant to mediate these effects.
Sleepers can become accustomed to the sound of their alarm clock if it has been used for a period of time, making it less effective. Because progressive alarm clocks have a complex waking procedure, they can deter this adaptation due to the body needing to adapt to more stimuli than just a simple sound alert.
Time switches used as alarms
Time switches can be used to turn on anything that will awaken a sleeper, and can therefore be used as alarms. Lights, bells, and radio and TV sets can easily be used. More elaborate devices have also been used, such as machines that automatically prepare tea or coffee. A sound is produced when the drink is ready, so the sleeper awakes to find the freshly brewed drink waiting.
In popular culture
Alarm clocks have been the subject of a famous gag in cartoon comedies. Whenever a person is sleeping in bed, and the alarm clock suddenly rings, the person would respond by smashing it. One particular character commonly associated with the gag is the comic-strip cat Garfield.
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