Did time tracking begin with Fred Flintstone?

If you are one of the millions of people across the world who need to track their time on timesheets, you know how tedious and monotonous it can be. Tracking every minute of your work day is not fun. So I’m sure this video of Fred Flintstone joyfully punching out with the red dinosaur will put a smile on your face.

Never fails to cheer me up ūüôā

But timesheets are an essential part of business. Virtually every industry measures the cost of labor, in hours and minutes. And it’s timesheets that make this possible.

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi at the Louvre

The Ancient Roots of Time Tracking

Tracing back the history of time tracking takes us to ancient Babylon and the Code of Hammurabi. Yep, him of the “eye for an eye” fame! This ancient treatise written in 1754 BC, set a typical worker’s daily wage at 6 grains of silver. Without adjusting for 3,772 years of inflation, that works out to about $ 0.25 per day.¬† It also mandated specific pay for specific types of work. While wages were set by the day at that time, it laid the foundation for¬†the time-based labor practices¬†that we follow to this day.

The Timesheet

Ben Franklin - an early time keeper
Ben Franklin – an early time keeper

So let’s fast forward to a more modern time – the 18th century. We begin to see more emphasis on effective time management as the workforce began to shift from being mostly independent work to an employer-employee business model. One of the key champions of time tracking was Benjamin Franklin. He kept the most meticulous and detailed time tracking records that could ever be. In fact, looking at what he could accomplish in one day, would make most of us feel worthless. He’s even credited with coining the term “time is money” to drive home his point.

Following Ben Franklin’s views about time and money, employers wanted to make sure that they only paid for time worked. While employees wanted to make sure that they were actually being paid for that time. Obviously there was a need for accurate and efficient time tracking methods. Pen-and-paper based time tracking records were the solution at the time. Though the system was error-prone, time consuming and relied heavily on employees maintaining truthful and accurate records, the practice continued for years and is still used in some businesses.

The Time Clock

The Bundy Clock
The Bundy Clock

Move on to the 19th century, and finally the world caught up with Fred Flintstone’s punch clock method of recording time.

As timekeeping technology developed, the daily wage was replaced by the hourly wage. In¬†November 1888,¬† an Auburn, NY jeweler named Willard Bundy started producing a time tracking product by the name of The Workman’s Time Recorder. His brother Harlow started mass producing the clock and in 1890, they filed for a patent for the clock.

Several other inventors during that time period developed mechanical time recording devices to help businesses keep track of their employees’ hours. Over the next century, entire companies dedicated to time tracking solutions emerged, improving on the Bundy design. To this day, many manufacturing plants and business office employees use a time card and a black box system similar to Bundy’s Clock to record their attendance and payroll. But not all professions paid so much attention to the clock. Engineers, lawyers and architects still charged by the job and not by the hour.

The Billable Hour

A paper timesheet
A paper timesheet

During the 1950s, the efficiency experts who had squeezed extra production out of factories brought their skills to bear on the service professions. They created a new measure: the billable hour. Thus laying the foundation for your¬†<insert profession here> charging you hundreds of dollars while you discuss last night’s game with him ūüôā Billable and non-billable hours became a significant part of project estimating and forecasts. Workers tracked their time on paper timesheets, creating a huge repository of information about how long different tasks would take.

Time Tracking in the Digital Age

As computers became more ubiquitous in the workplace, many companies started replacing the cumbersome paper time sheets with digital ones. Programs like Excel and eventually time tracking software revolutionized the way that businesses tracked their employees’s hours and time-off.

Rather than punching in and out, employees now swipe a card, enter an identification number or perhaps just click a button. All the data is then stored digitally for easy access at any point. Better yet, it’s now remarkably easy to discern patterns in and trends in the time sheet data through automatically generated reports and dashboards.

Mobile Time Tracking

Mobile Time Tracker Clock out
Mobile Time Tracker Clock out

Increasingly, supervisors and employees in the field are using mobile devices such as phones and tablets to capture the time spent on different projects and tasks. Automating these tasks, frees up employees to focus more on their work and less on writing down their time.  In addition to time, employees can also track notes, photos, expenses and other details all on their mobile devices. With mobile devices, employers can also choose to track GPS locations as well. And with all time now efficiently and easily tracked, businesses are pleasantly surprised by the addition to their bottom line when they move from paper time sheets to mobile time tracking.

Is time really moving faster? The story of time measurement

Talk to almost anybody and you’ll hear about how rushed their lives are and how they never seem to have time for anything. Talk to older people and they’ll tell you about how their growing up years were slower and gentler. So has time measurement changed? Are we measuring it differently now?

Think about life in an agricultural society. Nature set the pace there. Farmers woke up when the rooster crowed, ate their mid-day meal when the sun was right overhead, brought their animals home to the barn at dusk and went to bed, when night fell. A simpler time? Perhaps.

That worked when people lived and worked individually. Even when craftsmen and handloom workers worked individually or with a few apprentices, they had the luxury of doing things at their own pace, perhaps even taking a day off because they felt like it. But as work became more inter-connected and inter-dependent, that lifestyle began to change. And pretty dramatically at that.

The Industrial Revolution
Our modern value of time stems from the Industrial Revolution. It brought about a huge change in the perception of time. Time became more defined and standardized.

Factory Time

With the Industrial Revolution came factories. With factories came

The 8 hour work day
The 8 hour work day

machines. Machines were expensive to start and run. So the factory owners needed people to start and end work at specific times to maximize the use of their machines. And with that came the concept of factory clocks and loud sirens that aurally signaled to workers when they had to come in to work. Sirens or whistles would signal lunch times and break times. These break times were the only times that the machines would stop and fall silent. And gradually, all factory workers times and schedules got inextricably linked to the machine on-off times. Factory workers became slaves to time as demands for efficiency became greater.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, banks and other commercial activities began to grow to provide services for the fast growing and expanding factories. While workers at these commercial activities were not ruled by whistles or sirens, they too had specific, defined work hours. Easier perhaps than those of the factory worker, leading up to the term “banker’s hours”.

Transportation time.

With roads and turnpikes and tracks for steam engines criss-crossing the country, the Industrial Revolution completely upended travel in England. And from a time perspective brought about big changes. Towns generally went by solar times and kept it’s own local time. Even in a country as small as England, these times could

Owen Blacker
1913 time zone map of the US

vary by over 30 minutes if the town were on opposite ends of England. Now transplant that same system to the United States and see how much more complicated things become in this vast country. The greater speed of locomotives made inconsistent times even more difficult to control. Scheduling trains and stage coaches was a nightmare. So uniform time became a big issue. As a result in England, a uniform railway time was adopted, based on the Greenwich Mean Time, leading to the division of the world into time zones.

Military time

The mania for timekeeping and efficiency spurred by the Industrial Revolution made pocket and wrist watches very popular. And with the growth of wrist watches, life became simpler for the military. It was easier to coordinate attacks across larger geographical stretches with officers having synchronized wrist watches. For the most part, officers were expected to purchase their own wrist watches, preferably with a luminous (radium coated) dial and an unbreakable crystal. By the end of the First World War, all officers and soldiers in the British Army had been issued wrist watches. The wrist watch made it simpler for soldiers to check the time, without having to take their hands off the gun to take out a pocket watch. After the war, men continued to wear their wrist watches, propelling them into the mainstream.

The number of minutes in an hour or the number of seconds in a minute has not changed over time. But the ruthless efficiency demanded by the Industrial Revolution, has regulated our lives and made more synchronized withe clock, rather than with the natural rhythms of nature.


For whom the clock chimes… with apologies to Hemingway

Every Sunday evening, I wind up an antique wall clock at home. Last evening, I

Pendulum wall clock
Pendulum wall clock

inserted the clock key into two winding points to wind the clock for the week, and painstakingly moved the minute hand around to set the correct time.¬† Then I made sure that the clock was correctly positioned. If not, the clock either runs too fast or too slow. As I did all these mundane tasks, I began to think of how quaint the whole process seemed in today’s fast-moving world, where things seem to change in a fraction of a second. And I began to think of how the process of time tracking began and changed over time.

So how did human beings first start tracking or measuring time? Ever since humans noticed the regular movement of the Sun, the moon and the stars, they observed the passage of time. Pre-historic people first recorded the phases of the moon 30,000 years ago, but the first minutes were accurately recorded a mere 400 years ago. Atomic clocks that allowed humankind to track the approach of the third millennium (the year 2001) by a billionth of a second are less than 50 years old.

Measuring time in ancient times

The earliest time measuring devices were made to divide the day or the night into different periods in order to regulate work or ritual, so the lengths of time periods varied greatly from place to place and from culture to culture.

An Egyptian obelisk
An Egyptian obelisk

Our sexagesimal  timekeeping was first started in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt nearly 4,000 years ago, Around 3500 BC, the Egyptians used tall obelisks to track the shadows cast by the sun, which helped them separate their days into two halves. They kept improving their time keeping with the development of the sundials around 1500 BC. The ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese civilizations all used sundials extensively.

Oil lamps and candle clocks were used for telling time in China. They were used to mark the passage of time from one event to another, rather than to tell the exact time of day.

And then we have the very interesting Water clock. The Water clock or Clepsydra was

Water Clock or Clepsydra
Water Clock or Clepsydra

invented around 1600 BC. It relied on the flow of water from or into a container. A simple water clock measures time by measuring the regulated flow of water into or out of a vessel of some sort.  Water clocks existed in Egypt and Babylonia as early as 1600 BC and possibly significantly earlier in India and China. While the clepsydra was more reliable than oil lamps and candle clocks, the water flow still depended on the variation of pressure from the head of water in the container. The ancient Greeks and Romans used complex gears and escapement mechanisms to increase the accuracy of these water clocks.

Samrat Yantra, Jaipur India
The world’s largest sundial in Jaipur, India

Sundials or shadow clocks which measure the time of day by means of the shadow cast by the Sun onto a cylindrical stone, was widely used in ancient times. In a typical sundial, the Sun casts the shadow of a gnomon (a thin vertical rod or shaft) onto a horizontal surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. It can give a reasonably accurate reading of the local solar time. As the Sun moves across the sky, the edge of the shadow aligns with different hour markings. Sundials can therefore only be used during the daylight hours.

Mechanical clocks

Mechanical clock in Prague
Mechanical clock in Prague

And as we moved to the middle ages, mechanical clocks started being used. Mechanical clocks with continually repeated mechanical (“clockwork”) motion, began to be developed independently in China, the Middle East and Europe in the early Middle Ages.¬† They used a method of gradually and smoothly translating rotational energy into an oscillating motion that can be used to count time. They used a variety of toothed wheels, ratchets, gears and levers. Early mechanical clocks were housed in church towers or important government buildings. Early clocks did not have faces and just struck the hour for religious or administrative purposes. By the late 14th century, the convention of a rotating hour hand on a fixed dial became common. These clocks were still not very accurate and errors of 15 minutes to an hour per day were common.

Spring Clock
Spring Clock

Spring driven clocks began to appear in Europe in the 15th century and new innovations were developed in order to keep the clock movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. As accuracy increased (correct to within a minute a day), clocks began to appear with minute hands, mainly in Germany and France in the 16th century. By the time of the scientific revolution, clocks had become miniaturized enough for wealthy families in Europe to have a personal clock, or perhaps even a pocket watch.

In 1656, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens developed the pendulum clock, based on the earlier ideas of Galileo, who had discovered the isochronism, or constant period, of a pendulum’s motion in 1583. The pendulum clock used a swinging bob to regulate the clock motion and achieved an accuracy of within 10 seconds per day. with this level of accuracy, the seconds hand now became possible on clocks.

Mass production of clocks began in the United States in the late 18th century. In 1836, the Pitkin Brothers produced the first American-designed watch, and the first containing machine-made parts. New innovations and economies of scale with mass production, made the United States the leading clock-making country in the world. Competition reduced the price of a clock to $ 1 or less, making clocks affordable to a large number of families.

Modern clocks

An Electric clock, which winds the mainspring using an electric motor, was patented by Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain in 1840. By the end of the 19th century, the invention of the dry cell battery made electric clocks a popular and mechanical clocks were now largely powered by batteries, removing the need for daily winding.

1915 wristwatch. Electa 250
1915 wristwatch. Electa 250

Meanwhile, the military hastened the development of the wristwatch. Most forms of communication were vulnerable to enemy interception. So the British military issued wristwatches to it’s officers in the late 19th century, so that they could coordinate activities and movements without having to communicate directly during battle. By the end of World War I, all British troops had been issued wristwatches specially designed to withstand the rigors of trench warfare. These troops returned to civilian life still wearing them, and they quickly became an indispensable time management tool for managers and workers. Wristwatches remained an indispensable part of daily life until the early part of the 20th century.

Apple Smartwatch
Apple Smartwatch

With the advent of cell phones in the late 20th century, many people replaced the wrist watch with their phones to tell time, as an alarm and as a timer. But in a remarkable switch around (and a validation of how quickly technology changes) wearable smartwatches are developing so quickly that they could replace smartphones. Smartwatches today, offer cellular connectivity and can function on their own. With a separate data plan, smartwatches can handle basic tasks – texting, emailing, workout tracking – without a phone in Bluetooth range. You can even make phone calls.

But with all the advances in technology, for me, the reassuring tick of my clock and the chimes as it strikes the hour and the half-hour signify a kinder, gentler time, when things moved an unhurried pace than ours. And I think of that immortal quote from the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” – “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”….