Summertime is a great season to catch up on reading and I just finished an enlightening book, “The History of Sleep” by Irving M. Bushed, PhD. Professor Bushed did exhaustive research on human slumber, from caveman insomnia to the solid 40 winks we enjoy today.
The first big breakthrough in sleep was the discovery of the horizontal position. Prior to this, humans crouched in trees, or huddled by fires, nodding off now and then. Stretching out on the ground led to the next big development – the invention of the bed.
Beds were first developed in what is now India and featured rows of nails. Not everyone found this pointy surface to be restful. In fact, Egyptians began placing cotton over the nail points during the dynasty of Sealy II.
After the invention of the mattress, sleep technology stalled for several centuries. Then, in 1299, an Italian feather merchant named Rocco Garibaldi was carrying his load of chicken feathers to market. Exhausted by the weight of the sack, Garibaldi stopped to rest. In the custom of the times, he placed a rock under his head and his feet on the sack. Still not comfortable, Garibaldi made a discovery that not only improved sleep technology – it raised the price of chicken feathers.
Now that mattresses and pillows were in wide use, sleep scientists turned their attention to sleep patterns. They sought new insights into sleep by observing the behavior of animals. During their daylong surveillance of a cat, they discovered there were units of sleep smaller than the full eight hours.
Naps were first used experimentally on infants and the elderly, before being approved for the general population. Since then, the nap has become one of the most popular forms of sleep and can be used in schools, concert halls and board meetings.
Sleeping conditions continued to improve during the 20th century. Beds became softer, pillows fluffier and the blanket evolved into the comforter. The end of the 12-hour workday also helped. In fact, sleeping reached the height of its popularity right when it came face to face with its greatest enemy – electricity.
Early man had gone to sleep early because there was nothing to do after dark. But electricity opened a Pandora’s Box of nighttime pleasures – reading lights, radio, television, computers and video games. During the last half of the century, nobody wanted to go to bed.
The final chapter of “The History of Sleep” details the sleep crisis we’re now facing, with Americans averaging less than seven hours per night. The book’s conclusion was so exciting it kept me up past my bedtime. Had the wake-up call not been invented in 1924, I would have been late for work.