A Brief History Of The Time Clock

Have you ever considered where the employee time clock comes from? Or why we have an eight-hour workday? Or why you still update employee hours in a spreadsheet? The very things we take for granted were once controversial ideas and revolutionary inventions in history. There are dozens of factors that contribute to the modern workplace, and employee time tracking plays a valuable role in our daily lives. Let’s go back in time -- so far back that people were still using shells as money -- to explore the history of employee time tracking and how it shapes today’s workplace.

Before 1500 BC - A Days Wage

The sundial represents the first relatively accurate method of tracking the time of day.  The earliest sundials can be traced back to 1500 BC from ancient Babylonian and Egyptian astronomy.  Before humans could track time workers were most likely paid by the day.

500 BC - Ancient Rome Develops a “Salarium” for Soldiers

In Roman times, soldiers were paid a “salarium” or payment to buy salt, which was used as currency and was considered essential for living in the time. Along with the word salary, many experts believe these roman origins are where the phrase “worth his salt,” comes from.

From Ancient Rome through the Second Industrial Revolution in 1930, the term salary referred to payment for services. In this case, a salary could mean a flat fee for work or hourly compensation. It wasn’t until the 1800s that employers started differentiating between flat-pay for work and an hourly rate.

1888 - Willard Legrand Bundy Invents the Time Clock

All while unions were protesting and lawmakers were debating working conditions, one man in New York was tinkering away in his jewelry shop. Willard Legrand Bundy was born and raised in Cayuga County, New York. Bundy opened a jewelry store and used his trade to develop multiple inventions, many of which are still used today. Bundy holds patents for multiple cash registers and calculating machines, but he is known for inventing the employee time clock. The patent for his time recorder (the precursor to modern time tracking) was approved in 1888 and Bundy started a business manufacturing machines that would record when employees would clock in and clock out of work.

In 1889, the Bundy Manufacturing Recording Company opened in Binghamton with eight employees and $150,000 in capital. By 1898, the company expanded to 140 skilled workers and had sold more than 9,000 Bundy Time Recorders. These machines were sold as a solution for "vexatious questions of recording employee time.”

In the following years, as the time clock become commonplace in the American workplace, the Bundy Manufacturing Company merged with various other companies. It eventually became the International Time Recorder Company (ITR). In 1911, this business was incorporated in New York State as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which was the forerunner of IBM (International Business Machines Corporation).

The next time you use an IBM product, you can thank Willard Legrand Bundy and his employee time recorder.

1977 - The Home Computer Hits the Market

As developers started to explore the world of computers and technology, brands like Apple started to develop personal devices for non-technical users. Home computers first hit the market in 1977 and were meant for people who didn’t need advanced computing in scientific labs or within companies. These computers were less powerful, but they typically had better sound and graphics than professional computers.

As computers expanded into the home, they also become more common in the non-tech savvy workplace. You suddenly didn’t need to be an engineer to have a computer in your office. In 1984, 8.2% of homes had a computer. By 1993, that number jumped to 22.9% and then 51% by the year 2000. The commonality of workplace and home computers lead to the development of personal software.

Previously, software companies developed a product and sold it for thousands of dollars to a select few companies. For example, SABRE was developed in 1964 by American Airlines and IBM as one of the most-publicized computerized reservation systems. This likely took entire teams of developers to create.

However, when computers started showing up in every home, the market expanded from a few select companies to millions of people and businesses across America. The software industry changed dramatically to the creation of tools sold for small amounts to large audiences, a model most SaaS companies still follow today.

As the market for software evolved, developers created time clock tools that companies could buy and install on their computers, moving employee time tracking out of history and into its digital form. 

1978 - Electronic Spreadsheet Invented, Business Can Track Time Easily

As manual punch clocks grew more common in the American workplace and across the world, not much changed throughout the mid-1900s. However, a few circles started to buzz about special calculating machines called computers and how they could revolutionize our society.

One man, in particular, created an invention which many small businesses use today to balance their books and employee time sheets. Richard Mattessich is credited as the pioneer of the electronic spreadsheet, which allowed other develops to create some of the first mainstream accounting tools.

In 1978, Harvard Business School students Daniel Bricklin and Bob Frankston developed an interactive visible calculator called VisiCalc that could be used on personal computers. This way, anyone who had this computer and this program about track data and manipulate it for their accounting and analytical needs.

While paper spreadsheets have been around for centuries, the digital option made it easy for accountants to enter data and have it calculated automatically.

1991 - The World Wide Web is Born, Enter Web Based Time Clocks

Computers had become increasingly popular in tech-based workplaces and engineering companies, however, something was going to change that would bring them mainstream and change employee time tracking once again. In 1991, computer programmer Tim Berners-Lee debuted the World Wide Web. This “web of information,” was meant to do more than send files. It was supposed to provide information to people and connect data from all over the world.

Over the next decade, the Internet would continue to grow. Dial-up modems became the background noise of homes, more companies would start using computer technology, and people started to share information by a communication tool called “e-mail.”

With these changed in technology, employee time tracking evolved, too. Microchips and employee identification cards meant team members could swipe in instead of physically placing a punch card into a machine. In some companies, employees could even clock in via computer. Additionally, the invention of the internet meant that employees could clock in online from their own devices instead of downloading software or using hardware in the employee break room. As long as team members had access to the web, they could clock in or out.

Computer technology has become an essential part of any company, where even non-tech based businesses like coffee shops and churches rely on the web to manage their operations. As technology becomes more important, it also became more mobile. This opened the door for remote workers to check in wherever they are -- whether they are working from home because of a sick kid or calling in from a villa in Bali. In fact, in 2018 about 70 percent of workers reported working remotely at least one day per week.

The modern time clock isn’t a heavy machine on the wall. It is found in app that travels in your pocket all day via your smartphone or can be easily found on a website on your work laptop. 

2019 and Beyond - The Future of Employee Time Tracking

Modern technology continues to change how we work, but a few things remain the same. We believe that employee time tracking will always be around as long as people get paid by the hour. Employee time tracking is certainly transitioning, especially as more employers embrace BYOD (bring your own device) culture and mobile time management, but the core of the employee time clock will remain the same.

In the future, we believe technology will allow employees to automatically be clocked in and clocked out when they come to work and leave for home. This will reduce human error in the clock-in process and allow employees to get paid accurately.

History shows that we have come a long way in the history of the employee time clock, and we are excited to see where technology takes us in the future.

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