4.04 – Alarms and Chimes

Last Update: 07-25-2022 @ 02:57

4.04 – Alarms and Chimes

From this fourth point of view, we look at how time is given without a dial, either sound or visual. Sound devices fall into two broad categories: mechanical and electronic. The first is mostly related to the clock’s mechanical movement. The second ones are more attached to clocks driven by electricity, including battery-powered clocks. Finally, there are devices specifically designed for the hearing impaired. They use light instead of sound to mark time.

4.04.1 – Mechanical Devices

4.04.2 – Electronic Devices

4.04.3 – Luminous Devices

Next: 4.05 – Architecture of the Case

Home » 4.00 – Taxonomy of Clocks » 4.04 – Alarms and Chimes

When we think of the bell, we immediately see the alarm clock with a bell on top like this Jerger Busy Boy. It is a West- Germany clock, so made before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two small automatons hit the bell at full speed. It’s effective for a wake-up because the ringtone is very loud.

(Image ID242: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Some alarm clocks have more than one bell, such as this one from Robertshaw Controls, a division of Lux Clock Manufacturing Co. of Waterbury, Connecticut. It’s the Gabriel model from the 1940s. Note the small round hammer in the middle of the two bells. At the right time, it hits the two bells to produce a loud sound.

(Image ID188: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

In American clocks, such as in this 8-day Sessions of the 1930s, the iron bell marks the half-hours while the spiral gong behind the bob rings the hours.

(Image ID193mvt : All rights reserved, Bordloub)

The bell is very present in several old French clocks, such as this one, a Franco-Belgian clock, with an A.D. Mougin movement (c. 1880), which is very representative of the French movements of the time. Unlike American clocks, the French bell is usually made of brass rather than cast iron or steel. Its sound is also more discreet. This one doesn’t sound an alarm, but hours and half-hours.

(Image ID154mvt: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

William Hoschke of New York obtained a patent for a bells design from the Sonora Chime Company on April 18, 1908. Seth Thomas acquired the rights in 1912, adapted the ringtone to his manufacturing techniques (note the movement-related ringing mechanism), lowered prices, and launched a range of Sonora clocks. It is a system of 4 or 5 bells or even 8, placed behind each other in a small wooden case that serves as a soundbox when the small hammers come to strike them. Here is the movement of my Seth Thomas Sonora No. 495 of 1922.

(Image ID045s: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

In several alarm clocks, the alarm comes from the sound that a small hammer makes on its metal case. Here is the mechanism of a 1906 Westclox alarm clock, the Iron Clad 500. Note the small hammer that protrudes from the motion (right image). This one hits the metal case at the right time.

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Spiral wire gongs are very common in clocks, French, American, German, table, mantle, tablet, wall, floor, but these are usually clocks that sound only the hours and half hour. The sound it produces is louder and lower than the bell found in clocks, except in alarm clocks. Here is an example, an 1880 Waterbury. The black spiral is attached to the center bell. The hammer is the small round piece attached to a rod coming from the movement. The left reversed black bell serves as the alarm bell with its small mechanism and its own hammer.

(Image ID093mvt: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

A clock needs harmonic rods to produce musical notes. These rods, made of steel or copper, have different lengths, each harmonized with a particular note of musical range. They are attached to a support usually made of black cast iron, which itself is bolted inside the clock case. A Bim-Bam clock needs one to three rods to chime. It takes at least five rods to produce the most popular chime, the Westminster. It can be up to eight. It takes nine and twelve rods for the three chimes, Westminster, St. Michaels, and Wittington. Here is a German Urgos movement with nine rods that can play the three melodies mentioned above. Generally speaking, at the first quarter of an hour, the clock will chime four notes, at half an hour, eight notes, at three-quarters of an hour, 12 notes, at the hour, 16 notes followed by the number of strokes corresponding to the time indicated.

(Images ID217mvt: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Some tall case clocks chime on tubes instead of harmonic rods.  The sound is thus much richer. It’s like a church organ when they chime. On your left is a movement of an American long-case floor clock (8 feet high) from the beginning of the 20th century. I photographed it when on the test bench of a cabinet and clockmaker amateur of my acquaintance. This clock has nine tubes. It plays three different tunes.

(Image: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

The cuckoo clock was born in Germany in the 18th century around the 1730s, in the beautiful Black Forest region. Two bellows produce the sound of the cuckoo. When the cuckoo sings, he comes out of his small cabin and sings the number of the time indicated. With exceptions, the cuckoo clock also has a spiral gong. Some more expensive cuckoos have a music box that plays a tune only at hours or at hours and half hours. In the latter case, the melodies are different to distinguish hours and half-hours. The principle is the same for such clocks as Quails or Trumpeters. The sound is different.

(Image ID194mvt: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Small music box devices are found mostly in alarm clocks, officer clocks, carriage clocks, and cuckoos. Represented, the music box of a small German alarm clock Heco. At the right time, it is the small Swiss music box that plays a tune, the Blue Danube. I have another similar alarm clock that plays Love Story.

(Image ID086m: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

The electronic buzzer is part of the era of the electric clock. In the alarm clocks, the bell is replaced by a buzzer as in this 1950s Canadian-made Westclox alarm clock from the collection of The Canadian Clock Museum.


(Image published with the permission of The Canadian Clock Museum)

In some sophisticated alarm clocks, the buzzer is replaced by a short tune or notes produced electronically and broadcast by a small speaker, as in this electric Westclox DreamScape of the 1980s, made in China for Westclox Canada, Peterborough, Ontario. It plays the sound of rain in the forest, the sound of the countryside or the seaside.

Some chime clocks, often as a substitute for mechanical movement, also include a battery-powered movement with a loudspeaker that broadcasts the notes of Westminster Abbey, or else, such as this Hermle movement.

(Images ID245 & ID182: All rights reserved, Bordloub)


The modern version of the alarm clock, much more versatile, is the Amazon Echo Dot and its like, which appeared on the market in 2015. It is a natural voice or a tune of your choice that wakes you up. It may give the latest news or the weather outside if you ask for it. We don’t stop progress!

For deaf or hard-of-hearing people, bright alarm clocks have been made. Here is an example from the collection of The Canadian Clock Museum, an electric Westclox Moonbeam made in Canada. When the wake-up time comes, an intense light flashes, followed by a loud buzzer. The clock case is in Catalin™ plastic.

(Image published with the permission of The Canadian Clock Museum)

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