Read It and Sleep
A guide to the best alarm clocks.
There's nothing quite like the shock of the alarm going off in the morning. For most, it signals the arrival of yet another dreary day of work. For some, like me, it heralds the tragic end of what was probably a poor night's sleep: intermittent, anxiety-filled, and barely coaxed with the aid of half an Ambien. Many of us prolong the act of getting up by repeatedly hitting the snooze button until we accidentally turn the damn thing off. Why do so many alarm clocks greet us with sadistic, high-pitched screeches? Is there a better way to wake?
The alarm clock has, of course, improved greatly since its invention. Chris Bailey, curator of the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Conn., dates the earliest alarm clocks in America to grandfather clocks that colonists brought from England. According to Bailey, the first drum-type alarm clock was patented in 1877, though he says it is a matter of some dispute as to whether the Seth Thomas Clock Company or the Ansonia Clock Company first put it into production
Today's alarm clocks have an astounding number of features: built-in radios, nature sounds, dual alarms, CD players, iPod docking bays, sunrise simulators, programmable snooze buttons … some even offer aromatherapy. And inventors continue to seek out ways to make them more sophisticated. There's Clocky, a gadget that resembles a piece of shag rug on wheels. When you hit the snooze button, Clocky will roll off your nightstand and is supposed to hide in a different spot each day. And a company called Axon Sleep Research Laboratories is developing a headband called SleepSmart that monitors brain activity and will wake you up during the "optimal" (or lightest) phase of your sleep cycle. Axon's co-founder, Jason Donahue, says that the technology is based on research acquired in the '50s and '60s from Air Force pilots who reportedly made more mistakes when they woke up groggy on the job.
Since these two more innovative products aren't yet ready for prime time, I took a look at 10 clocks currently on the market. I spent an evening getting to know each clock (reading their instruction manuals, fiddling with their buttons and knobs) before I took them to bed for a one- to two-night stand (depending on how well we got along). This is by no means an exhaustive list—in fact, the sheer number and variety of clocks is, dare I say … alarming.
Ease of Use (10 possible points): Our days are stressful enough already—setting one's alarm clock should not be as difficult as programming a computer. Was the instruction manual required reading? Did the clock wake me up in the middle of the night because I set it wrong? Could my Luddite father use this thing?
Wakeupability (10 possible points): The clock may not roll under the bed or have a mind of its own, but is the alarm volume adjustable for light and heavy sleepers? How well will it get me out of bed without making me want to smash it against a wall?
Features (10 possible points): More features don't necessarily make a better clock, but this was an important metric in determining its overall quality.
Looks (10 possible points): Not only do you have to hear this thing every day, but you have to look at it, too. It needs some redeeming aesthetic qualities.
RANKINGS (from worst to best):
Brookstone Floating Message Alarm Clock, $59.00 This clock, which has an oscillating LED arm that makes "floating messages" appear, comes with the following warning: "Though rare, some people experience headaches, dizziness, and/or other medical problems when viewing flickering lights, such as television screens and moving message display systems. They should use caution while viewing the clock display." In fact, the clock's LED arm swung back and forth so rapidly that it made my nightstand shake, and after about five minutes, it did make me nauseated. Aside from the immediate novelty of being able to program the clock to display messages like, "Wake up, fool!" I can't think of a reason to buy it.
Dan Crane is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He is the author of To Air is Human: One Man's Quest to Become the World's Greatest Air Guitarist.
Photographs by Dan Crane.