The first mechanical alarm clock was developed by Plato, or so the story goes, and used a regulated flow of water to generate a whistling sound that awoke the drowsy philosopher. Alarm clock technology advanced slowly from there. By the Middle Ages, church bells were rung thrice a day — 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. — to let Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran parishioners know it was time to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, many medieval Europeans had tasks to attend to long before the first bell rung: Livestock to feed, porridge to boil, chamber pots to empty. So, in the absence of sunlight and iPhone alarms, poor, pre-modern souls had to find other ways of waking up — some riskier than others. One of the riskiest? The flintlock alarm.
The flintlock is a simple mechanism, developed in the 16th century for the very important purpose of making it easier to kill people with guns. It consists of a chunk of flint held between a set of jaws at the end of a spring-loaded hammer. When released, the hammer bursts forward, allowing the flint to strike a piece of steel. The steel moves back, uncovering a pan containing gunpowder. The impact of flint against steel creates a spark, which drops into the gunpowder, igniting it. Repeat this thousands upon thousands of times, and you may just win a Revolutionary War.
The flintlock wasn’t just useful in battle — it also made for an terrifying mechanical alarm clock. Some early inventor, who’s idea would undoubtedly earn millions of funding on Kickstarter today, added a flint lock mechanism to his morning alarm. When the clock struck the appropriate time, the flint lock mechanism would engage. Instead of firing a bullet, it lit a candle. Presumably, the light is sufficient to arouse its sleeping owner, though the crack of gunfire probably helped as well. To be safe, a bell also sounded.
Documentation on flintlock alarms is scant, but the British Museum is home to one clock. Built in Austria in the early 18th Century, it was signed by one Peter Mornier in London. Here’s the curator’s delightfully detailed description:
The mechanism is contained in a gilt-brass case, supported on four claw-shaped feet, the case plain, but with mouldings round the base and with a hinged cover. The left side containing an enameled dial with brass and steel hands and fitted with hinged and glazed lid, to the front is a flintlock mechanism with cock and steel. The clock consists of a brass movement with verge escapement and sprung balance wheel, a strike and an alarm train. The alarm is set by means of moving the blued steel hand on the dial towards the remaining hours before striking. Fitted into the base is an arm with a socket for a candle which is held against a spring. When the alarm is activated the bell starts sounding and the flintlock mechanism fires, kindling the gunpowder in the pan which lights the candle which rises to a vertical position as the cover is automatically released. The clock strikes every full hour and has a repeating possibility, the movement is of twenty-four hours duration.
The British Museum mentions another flintlock alarm clock in Vienna, suggesting that the device was not merely the work of an eccentric, hard-to-wake inventor with unusual hours. But it also seems safe to assume flintlock alarms were not as common as modern clock radios, given their high-end materials and elaborate construction, not to mention their potential to light nightgowns and droopy hats on fire. Perhaps the British Museum piece awoke a butler in time to polish the morning cutlery, or a different butler in time to awaken that first butler. We may never know, and can only hope it never burned down the mansion, butlers and all.