How did people wake up on time before alarm clocks?

I was thinking about this as I lay me down to sleep last night, and came up with a null hypothesis:

Other options:

  • They did, by intentionally going to sleep 7–8 hours before they meant to wake up. (Incidentally, I recently read a snippet of a Socratic dialogue in which he claims that we spend "half our lives in each state, sleeping and waking" — is that a wild exaggeration or did people sleep longer?)

  • They did, because roosters.

  • They did, because church bells (and other types of shift-sleeping?).

At this point I decided to stop theorizing and just ask here where people might actually know. :)

A fully satisfactory answer would give a rough indication of how it was done in different periods if the available technology made any difference.

  • 13
    They often had a Knocker-up Sep 1, 2018 at 14:36
  • 4
    If you google your question as you worded it, you'll get plenty of sources/answers. Sep 1, 2018 at 15:30
  • 7
    Anecdotally, even though I set an alarm on the (fairly rare) occasions when I have to be up at a certain time, I will almost always wake up 5-15 minutes before the alarm goes off.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 1, 2018 at 17:12
  • 1
    @jamesqf Hmm, good point. That's my experience too. Sep 1, 2018 at 18:28
  • 4
    Light is an excellent alarm clock
    – user31561
    Sep 2, 2018 at 7:48

7 Answers 7


Most people just rose at dawn, or when the birds started their noise, like a rooster. Those few who really had to wake up earlier were usually woken up by 'specialists', like the Knocker up

Letting someone else wake you is just shifting the problem. How would those people wake up?

As long as a human keeps a fairly regular circadian rhythm with sleeping at night then there are several factors or biological mechanisms built-in, our own time keeper, synced to the Zeitgeber:

  • after your amount of necessary sleep, you wake up
  • when daylight comes, you wake up
  • when you plan on having a certain time to wake up, you tend to wake up shortly before that time has come

That is of course not a guarantee for waking up if you have to.

That's a problem common enough that even the ancients Greeks turned to artificial inventions. We can be sure that those who built the Antikythera mechanism had something up their sleeves.

Do not look further than Plato as the inventor of one of the first alarm clocks:

Video on YouTube from a Greek museum The alarm clock of Plato (the first awakening device in human history)

The alarm clock of Plato: The upper ceramic vessel supplies the next vessel through an (appropriately calculated for every case) outflow funnel. When the second vessel becomes full at the programmed moment (for example after 7 hours) through the internally located axial pipette, it evacuates fast towards the next closed vessel and forces the contained air to come out whistling through a tube at its top. After its function, the third vessel empties slowly (through a small hole located at its bottom) towards the lower storage vessel in order to be reused. enter image description here

Archimedes and Aristotle also had their go at clocks.

So, they all did the same we do today from a certain point in time forward: either wake up naturally, or use an early form of alarm clock, if they could afford one.

And yes, before the industrial age and cheap artificial lighting, people had a much healthier sleep cycle, even if it was fragmented, for whatever reason.

A. Roger Ekirch: "Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles". American Historical Review, 106:2, 2001, pp. 343-386.


An important point which no one has mentioned - for most people, the need to wake up 'on time' is a product of the industrial revolution so before that there was no need for alarm clocks. Waking up at an approximate time was good enough. These days our lives are dominated by schedules and timetables - this is most obvious with transport, something which people use far more than they used to (see Traveling in the Middle Ages for example).

Some people did have to get up at a certain time though but before alarm clocks one had to be able to tell the time so the Egyptians came up with sundials. The Greeks (see LangLangC) and Romans used water alarm clocks, and they also had slaves to wake them (not sure who woke the slaves though).

In China, Yi Xing invented a timepeice in 725 which was more than just an alarm. It's detailed here.

The clock was slightly more complicated than the average timepiece today, measuring not only time but the distance of planets and stars. A water wheel turned gears in the clock, with puppet shows and gongs set to emerge at various times.

These devices are interesting but very people had them, or needed them.

  • 3
    I remember learning in history class in college that when Henry Ford opened a factory in Russia his workers would arrive for work any old time. The factory bosses ultimately solved the problem by issuing alarm clocks for the workers... this was in the 1930s! Sorry can't find a reference just now. Industrial revolution could be somewhat forgiving of odd arrivals but the production line and "scientific taylorism" could not.
    – AllInOne
    Oct 26, 2018 at 13:30
  • 1
    Medieval churches and monasteries certainly had schedules!
    – C Monsour
    Oct 6, 2020 at 23:55
  • 2
    I am skeptical of the value of sundials in waking people up on time. Perhaps it is only that I am awake and at work before the sun rises (when a sundial is useless).
    – MCW
    Oct 7, 2020 at 12:29

Where I live in South Germany the village church rings its bells at 6 am every day. This used to be to wake people up to come to early service. Later when early service stopped being a thing they continued this to wake people up for work.


In some towns and cities people were woken by waits (also spelt waites).

Waits, who were present in "every British town and city of any note", were (usually) salaried bands of musicians who had a range of duties, one of which was sometimes to wake people.

From the earliest times, up until their abolition in 1836, they played about the streets of the town at night during the winter months. Sometimes this was combined with the duty of calling out the hour and the state of the weather, and, in sea ports, the state of the tide. In other places, they started in the early hours and played to wake people up for work.

enter image description here

18th century waits in Haddington, East Lothian. Source: The Waits Website


It depended on social class of these "people". Upper/and middle class people were woken up by their servants (if needed). Peasants had a habit to wake up with the sunrise. For factory workers, there was a siren (in the factory) which produced a very loud sound which could be heard far around. These factory sirens still existed (for example in Soviet Union) in the middle of 20th century.

  • 3
    Actually, some of old neighbours from my past domicile recently shared their impressions from their stay in a sanatorium near Vacha (Nizhegorodskaya oblast, Russia) this summer. One of their strongest emotions was from factory sirens, which still regulate the life of the town!
    – ach
    Sep 9, 2018 at 8:53

The other answers have given some great explanations on how people were woken up.

There's one thing that is missing though. As well as a relative lack of timetabled transport or precise work schedules, home life was in some ways more conducive to good sleep. In addition to the absence of electric lights, artificial light (candles) was very expensive up until relatively recent times.

For this reason, when it was dark, you went to sleep. You couldn't sew, read, cook or do anything else that you might have done in the daylight. Additionally, many more people had jobs that were physically active - also good at helping people sleep, and something which leads people to go to sleep earlier than they otherwise might.

In other words, they woke up early because they went to bed early, and slept all night.

  • 3
    This sounds plausible, but it contradicts what I've read about biphasic sleep. Better sources would be required to reconcile the apparent conflict. "Historian A. Roger Ekirch[10][11] has argued that before the Industrial Revolution, interrupted sleep was dominant in Western civilization. He draws evidence from more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern in documents from the ancient, medieval, and modern world.[9] Other historians, such as Craig Koslofsky,[12] have endorsed Ekirch's analysis."
    – MCW
    Oct 7, 2020 at 16:06

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