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September 2, 2021

The Alarm Clock of Saint John the Faster

The alarm clock, annoying to many, is known as an invention for the diligent primarily to prevent oversleeping. Not everyone had bell ringers, roosters and accurate internal alarm systems throughout history, so the invention of the alarm clock is one of the most useful inventions of all time.

The first known mechanical alarm clock inventor is Levi Hutchins, an American from Concord, New Hampshire who in 1787 invented a personal alarm device to wake him at 4 a.m. He didn’t even have to be at work early, it was simply his “firm rule” to wake before sunrise. Though other alarm clocks existed previously, it seems Hutchins had not heard of them. German and English ones predated that alarm clock between the 15th and 17th centuries.

The first known alarm clock can actually be traced to Ancient Greece and was owned by Plato. Plato seems to have owned a large water clock, which was a popular style of clock back in Ancient Greece. They work by using water to control the passage of time. His clock, however, had an added feature. It was set to chime once in the early evening (presumably to signal the beginning of a lecture) and once at dawn, likely to make sure he was awake and ready to start his day.

Plato’s alarm clock couldn’t really be changed without modifying the entire structure of his water clock. The Ancient Greek engineer, Ctesibius, understood that in order for the device to be truly useful, it needed to be programmable. He made modification to the standard water clock with a dial and pointer, which were designed to indicate a certain time. At the time indicated on the dial, pebbles would drop onto a gong, thus signaling the alarm.

There must have been many such inventions throughout history by people who wanted to make sure they did not oversleep, or even to just be reminded to do something at a certain time. One could imagine that such an invention would be most useful to Christian ascetics and monks, who rely on keeping a daily liturgical cycle and prayer times and seek to be vigilant.

The sixth century Patriarch of Constantinople known as Saint John the Faster was known for his ascetic practice of keeping austere fasts, but he also is known for his austere asceticism in regards to sleep, doing whatever he could to give his body as little comfort as possible in order to subdue the flesh to the spirit and attain to sanctification. 
He used to sleep prostrate on his knees. Just to make sure that he wouldn’t oversleep, he would place a beeswax candle nearby and then press an iron nail into the side of the candle. When he was about to rest, he lit the candle, and as he took his brief nap, the candle burned down slowly until it reached the nail. When the heat of the flame had warmed and loosened the wax, the nail fell with a loud clatter onto a metal pot that was placed below the candle, thereby awakening the Saint. The Saint was here following the advice of the Desert Fathers who used to say, “He that wishes to be saved contrives means.”