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How Did People Wake Up for Work Before Alarm Clocks?

Before the advent of alarm clocks, people relied on natural cues, like the rising sun, or human services, such as the knocker-up, who tapped on windows to rouse workers. Internal body clocks also played a role, attuned to daily routines. Intrigued? Discover how these methods shaped productivity and time management in a world unconstrained by digital chimes.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

Although it has largely been replaced by alarms on cell phones, the alarm clock has been an indispensable part of modern life for decades. How else would people wake up in order to get to school or work on time?

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, a new and ingenious profession arose in Britain – the "knocker-up," also known as the "knocker-upper." The job description was pretty much what you would imagine: people were paid to wake workers so that they would be on time for their shifts, mostly in factories but also in mines and on the docks of port cities. Knocker-uppers usually did their job by using a long stick to tap on workers' windows or a baton to knock on doors, though some used hammers, rattles, and occasionally pea shooters. To specify their wake-up times, people wrote their shifts in chalk on slates outside their doors.

Who woke up the knocker-uppers?

  • The challenge for knocker-uppers was to wake only the individuals who paid for the wake-up service, rather than disturbing neighbors or waking up other potential customers for free.

  • For those wondering about the obvious question of who woke up the knocker-uppers, the answer is simply that they slept in the day and stayed up all night. They tended to be elderly men and women, but some policemen on early morning patrols supplemented their regular pay by working as knocker-uppers.

  • Affordable alarm clocks and the widespread installation of electricity in homes meant that by the 1940s and 1950s, most people no longer needed someone to wake them up each morning. However, in some industrial towns in Britain and Ireland, "knocker uppers" still plied their trade into the 1970s.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • From the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s, “knocker-uppers” in Britain and Ireland were paid to wake people up for work.
      From the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s, “knocker-uppers” in Britain and Ireland were paid to wake people up for work.