Good, shop in Bangkok Mall, 2011

What is history 2: Sleep Patterns

In Books, The rest by tony2 Comments

Featured image: Good, shop in Bangkok Mall, 2011

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 14 December 2015

My what is history series somewhat naively perhaps looks at history from the broad perspective of what processes an intelligent naked ape might go through to develop civilisation.

From that perspective the study of human history should also consider the external forces, including geography, environment, disease and natural disasters that have shaped the development of humanity. At the present time climate change makes this approach both pertinent and urgent.

The approach is not meant to replace mainstream histories, merely in the new era of big data, storage and retrieval to add to them. And, to perhaps provide a different flavour to the study of humanity.

The articles in the What is History? series are: Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns, 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6  Religion, 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress, 9 Guns, Germs and Steel: Overview, 10 Polynesia A Natural Experiment of History, 11 World Economic History, 12 References from Guns, Germs and Steel and 13 World History and Big History with other articles to come.

   What is History? — Sleep patterns


   The next two articles are about how relatively ordinary people (like us?) lived in other times. It is a quirky question, but one I’ve often asked. And, I must admit I’ve rarely been satisfied with the answers. Although an easy question to ask, it is difficult if not impossible to answer, and why historians tend to gloss over it.

Yet, we need to take it into account because how can we understand what happened in history, if we don’t know how people lived in other generations, because they didn’t necessarily think like us or behave like us, and we might gain some glimmer of understanding from the way they lived.

Artificial light

For example, we take artificial light for granted. We can go out at night without fear, we don’t have to go to bed when it gets dark. We have adequate lighting in our homes to do anything we want at night and to stay up as long as we want to.

Nightscene Ravenna, Italy, December 2012

Nightscene Ravenna, Italy, December 2012

Two hundred years ago things were different. In the late 18th century lamps were still rudimentary, depending on the same technology that had illuminated Roman homes and maybe caves in the Pleistocene, says Jane Brox. The wealthy had bees wax candles and the less offensive new oil from sperm whales.

Gas lighting was about to arrive. Yet from when gas came into the home people had to give up control of their light to an outside interest (Jane Brox), something to think about, the beginning of a vast cultural change. (With improvements in solar technology and battery storage, we may soon become empowered again and masters of our own lighting.)

By 1807, arguably the world’s first gas-fired public street lamps, 13 of them, were installed along Pall Mall in London. … Baltimore became the first US city to be lit by gas in 1816. (Jon Henley)

By the mid-nineteenth century most large cities in Europe and the USA were gas lit and the middle classes had gas lighting in their homes; also a new word ‘nightlife’ was coined in the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, electricity was replacing gas; factories and commercial districts were illuminated by electricity, as were the homes of the wealthy. In cities in the first decades of the new century, middle class and working class neighbourhoods had begun to be penetrated by electricity lines. By the time electricity arrived in the American farmhouse in the 1930s, incandescent globes could no longer be separated from the other electrical consumer goods brought into the home (Jane Brox).

Suvarnabhumi Airport Bangkok, Thailand. 2009

Suvarnabhumi Airport Bangkok, Thailand, 2009

As Jon Henley says of artificial light,

Darkness, our primordial dread, was about to lose its dominion… For starters, there were the imagined enemies. The darkness, pitch black and impenetrable, was the realm of the hobgoblin, the sprite, the will-o’-the-wisp, the boggle, the kelpie, the boggart and the troll. …

Then there were the real enemies. For the night was also the realm of the criminal: the vandal, the thief, the murderer. 

In cities, the murder rate was five to ten times as high as today. Gangs roamed the darkness.

In Munich, the nightly purpose of one such gang was to murder the first man they met.

These thoughts of Jon Henley come from a book by Roger Ekirch published in 2005 — a history of nighttime. Jon Henley cites him saying:

Yet despite its many dangers, the night held a mighty appeal. “Large numbers of people came up for air when the sun went down,” says Ekirch. “It afforded them the privacy they did not have during the day. They could no longer be overseen by their superiors.” Night was not only a great leveller; it overturned the social order of the day. Apprentices, servants, the poor, the excluded and the underprivileged could for once escape the eyes of their masters, employers and oppressors: darkness was their mask. …

 Street lighting was, self-evidently, a powerful weapon of both economic and social control, and in the urban riots that swept much of Europe in the 1830s and 40s, gas lamps were invariably one of the first targets, for symbolic as well as practical reasons. (One wonders whether CCTV cameras are the modern equivalent.)

Therefore, the introduction of street lighting led to many consequences, including negative ones as perceived by the under classes, which may well have led to social reform in the long run. Illumination was also inextricably linked with industrialisation and would have led to further exploitation of workers.

Ekirch and Brox

Roger Ekirch At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime Weidenfeld 2005 Roger Ekirch wrote At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime in 2005. The Guardian article by Henley in 2009 relies on Ekirch. Brox’s 2011 article in The Independent is a teaser for her own book Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light 2010.

I haven’t yet read either book. Both scored 3.7 on Goodreads. The reviews are mixed. The criticism of both is similar — they dragged a bit at times. Ekirch was dull early on. Both were episodic and perhaps without overall focus or direction. A brilliant or inspiring fact was followed by a dull one. Hence a series of facts linked cursorily, perhaps.

Ekirch is of further interest to me because he covers the one area that boggles my mind.

Jane Brox Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010

Jane Brox Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010

What did decent folk do after dark? Upper-class young blades drank the night away. Men in towns and cities took themselves to an alehouse. Others had chores after the evening meal: furniture to build, tools to repair, beer to brew. Women carded and spun wool, and wove it. There were parlour games to play, folk tales to tell, gossip to swap, friends and family to entertain. The literate few read, or wrote. But all went to bed early.

Once in bed Ekirch’s most fascinating revelation is that our pre-industrial ancestors experienced what Ekirch calls ‘segmented sleep’: there was ‘first sleep’ until around midnight, then a ‘second sleep’. In between, they peed, tended the fire, read or talked, smoked, had friends around, or simply meditated on the events of the previous day.

Plenty also had sex, by all accounts far more satisfactorily than at the end of a hard day’s labouring. Couples who copulated “after the first sleep”, wrote a 16th-century French doctor, “have more enjoyment, and do it better”.

Electric lighting has altered our sleep patterns and robbed us of this nocturnal hiatus.

Sleep patterns

Apartment Kitchen Florence, Italy, 2014

Apartment Kitchen Florence, Italy, 2014

I need eight hours sleep a night without interruption, any less and I feel hard done by. I felt that this was the natural order of things until a few months ago. Then I watched one episode of a TV series How We Got To NowEpisode 4 Light, which covered the obvious things outlined above and sleep patterns. I was stunned!

Ekirch found more than 500 hundred references from Homer onwards of segmented or bimodal sleep in his researches. Even more compelling is an experiment by Dr Thomas Wehr at America’s National Institute of Mental Health, which demonstrated that bimodel sleep is the natural pattern. A larger sample size would be definitive, but unless Wehr did something wrong his evidence is convincing. Wehr confined eight healthy men to a room for fourteen hours of darkness, every day for a month. At first the participants slept for about eleven hours, presumably making up for their sleep debt. After this the subjects began to sleep as much as people in pre-industrial times had. They would sleep for about four hours, wake up for two to three hours, then go back to sleep for another four hours. They also took about two hours to fall asleep.


Sherpa Kitchen Helambu, Nepal, 2009

Sherpa Kitchen Helambu, Nepal, 2009

History is rarely demonstrated so convincingly. I have been struck as if by an epiphany learning of bimodal sleep, because it is as amazing as it is banal.

We always believe that what we do is normal and in our arrogance that what people did in the past is amusing, or unusual even weird and strange. They behaved as they did out of ignorance and uncouthness. We are more civilised and progressive. History is progress and civilisation must necessarily mean improvement.

Certainly, there is more evidence of progress in human history than there is in biological evolution. The increasing complexity has some pattern to it, which it does not in evolution. But, it is hubris and lack of reflection to assume (without proof) that we are necessarily better than those in the past. The most casual glance at history shows that progress is not linear, history proceeds in fits and starts, empires and civilisations collapse. We need to take the viewpoint of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s alien galactic museum keeper in the remote future and not that of the present day to strive to be more objective.

Further Comment

Art Chandelier, Escher Exhibition Den Haag, Holland, 2007

Art Chandelier, Escher Exhibition Den Haag, Holland, 2007

In the above outline regarding the introduction of artificial light a number of complex issues have been raised by Brox and Ekirch, which are very relevant our understanding of history. We can’t follow these up in a short article. However, simply writing about this has convinced me that I will need to say something about technology and history in a future article.

Regarding artificial light, I am not unaware of what it is like without it, but only for brief periods. I have stayed in isolated villages in South and Southeast Asia, where there is no electricity. Candles and hurricane lanterns are the source of artificial light. You go to bed early and get up early.

In Mien/Yao villages in northern Laos, after a hard day’s work women in their black tribal outfits with black turbans and red-ruffs to their jackets (some with glasses, another story) embroider outside their huts in the last hour of sunlight, because you can’t embroider by candlelight. After dark they eat and do tasks inside the hut that require little light, very much like the patterns outlined above by Henley and Ekirch.

Yet, I have never asked the people who live this way about their sleep patterns. I must!

I do remember from trekking for three weeks at a time in Nepal that after a while you begin to have extremely vivid dreams often about people in your past that you don’t think about often, sometimes obscure people from the distant past. You also sleep like a log for at least nine hours a night and sometimes more, because of the hard exercise and altitude perhaps. However, this has nothing to do with a bimodal sleep, which I have never experienced.

I apologise for harping on but I have to, because bimodal sleep tips my perceived world on its head and makes me glad that I am not a historian.

What is history? is a very complicated question.

(The previous What is History? article was 1 Introduction.  Later articles are 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6  Religion and 7 EH Carr Causation in History and 8 EH Carr History as Progress.)

Key words: segmented sleep, bimodal sleep, sleep patterns, artificial light, gas light, electric light, candles and oil lamps, street lighting, lighting in the home, human behaviour patterns, nighttime, nightlife, fear, danger, street gangs, night crime, the comfort of the night, economic and social control

Further Information

Jane Brox Artificial light: How man-made brightness has changed the way we live and see forever

The Independent, 12 May 2011

Jon Henley Life before artificial light The Guardian 31 October 2009

Roger Ekirch At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime Weidenfeld 2005

Jane Brox Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010

Review of Roger Ekirch by Ian Pindar Because the night The Guardian Review 30 July 2005

 Review of Jane Brox by Elizabeth Royte Up From Darkness Sunday Review The New York Times 30 July 2010

Goodreads on Brox

Goodreads on Ekirch

Wikipedia on segmented sleep and Wehr’s experiment

Wikipedia on Thomas Wehr



  1. I’ve known about bimodal sleeps, but I didn’t know it sometimes took people two hours to get to sleep. The happens to me many nights, so maybe isn’t out of the ordinary.

    1. Author

      I think the two hours might have been because the experimental subjects were confined in the dark for 14 hours regardless.

      I imagine those who are exhausted after a day of manual labour go straight to sleep. And yes I’m sure they had insomniacs in the upper classes.

      I suspect the French doctor was right about the sex.

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