The Puritan Invention of the Alarm Clock

In most cultures, attitudes toward work are closely connected to conceptions of time. The people of the Bay Colony were no exception. For a Puritan, time was heavily invested with sacred meaning. Fundamentally, it was “God’s Time” as Samuel Sewall called it: “God’s Time is the best time, God’s way the best way.”

A central idea in this culture was that of “improving the time,” in the seventeenth-century sense of “turning a thing to good account.” Time-wasting in the Bay Colony was a criminal offense. As early as 1633 the General Court decreed:

No person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think meet to inflict; and for this end it is ordered, that the constables of every place-shall use special diligence to take knowledge of offenders in this kind, especially of common coasters, unprofitable fowlers and tobacco takers, and to present the same.

A year later, the Court fined two men the heavy sum of twenty shillings each for “misspending their time.”

The Puritan magistrate Samuel Sewall was infuriated by the wasting of time, and still more by its profanation. When he observed two men playing “idle tricks” on April Fools’ Day he angrily upbraided them:

In the morning I dehorted Sam. Hirst and Grindal Rawson from playing Idle Tricks because ‘twas the first of April. They were the greatest fools that did so. New England men came hither to avoid anniversary days, the keeping of them, such as the 25th of December. How displeasing it must be to God, the giver of our Time, to keep anniversary days to play the fool with ourselves and others.

Puritan writers showed an obsession with time. Their diaries were temporal inventories of high complexity. Birthdays rarely passed in Puritan lives without solemn reflections on the use of time. “I have now lived fifty years much longer than I once expected, blessed be to God,” one wrote in 1729, “but oh what abundant cause to be ashamed that I have lived to so little purpose.” The turn of each year was marked in the same way. An English Puritan wrote in his diary on one New Year’s Eve, “This is the last day of the year and I am sensible a great deal of it hath been lost and misspent.”

The daily rhythm of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was meant to make the best use of every passing moment. The New England day normally began at the crack of dawn. The country-folk of New England, wrote Mrs. Stowe, “were used to rising at daybreak,” to make the best use of every daylight moment.6 The Puritans also tried to reduce the time for sleep. Increase Mather resolved, “I am not willing to allow myself above seven hours in four and twenty for sleep; but would spend the rest of my time in attending to the duties of my personal or general calling.”

For the founders of Massachusetts, “improving the time” was primarily a spiritual idea. Their descendants later turned the same impulse to secular and materialist ends. The classical example was Boston-born Benjamin Franklin. In an essay called Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (1748) Franklin wrote:

Remember that TIME is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides. ...

Other cultures in Anglo-America showed nothing quite like this obsession with “improving the time,” which for more than three centuries became an important part of folkways in New England.

The Puritans in England and America also undertook the improvement of time in another sense—seeking better methods of measuring its passage. This impulse caused the English Puritan Ralph Thoresby to invent an alarm clock. In his diary on 1 November 1680, he made following entry:

Thinking to have got up by 6 was mistaken, and rose so early that I had read a chapter before it chimed four. Spent most of the time in reading my dear father’s diary, and after in writing some things, desiring to redeem my time from sleep I entered into a Resolution that if it might any ways conduce to the glory of God … for upon a serious consideration that I usually (now in winter especially) sleep away so much precious time which might be redeemed to the ends aforesaid, and then considering the capital brevity of our lives, to which a few years will put a period even to the longest, and perhaps a few weeks or days or perhaps minutes to mine in particular, considering these things I resolved in the strength of God to redeem more time, particularly to retrench my sleeping time, and getting an Alarm put to the clock and that set at my beds-head to arise every morning by five and first to dedicate the morning (as in duty obliged) to the service of God, by reading a chapter in an old Bible I have with annotations and then after prayer. …

A similar impulse in a more secular form led Benjamin Franklin a century later to invent the idea of daylight saving time. While American minister to France, Franklin was shocked that the people of Paris lost many hours of light by sleeping until midday, and then burned candles far into the night. He tried to enlighten his French friends in an essay called An Economical Project which proposed what we call daylight saving time.