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These punch cards were used for time keeping by Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards in Baltimore, MD, 1943. (FSA/OWI Collection/Library of Congress)

Clocking In, Clocking Out

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Many employees have experience with equipment or software used by employers to record staff time and attendance. Physical time recorders first became popular with businesses beginning in the latter part of the 19th century. While they are still used by many businesses today, “clocking in” and “punching out” on a physical time recording machine has given way to entering information into timesheets and online systems. But, how did such mechanisms get their start?

three women stand in line in front of an employee bulletin board at the time clock two look at the camera while one looks forward the woman in print is having here time card punched in
Parke, Davis and Company employees registering on time recorder, Arthur S. Siegel, 1944. (FSA/OWI Collection/Library of Congress)

The manufacture of jewelry and watches have long been intertwined, and so it might not be surprising that a New York jeweler and watchmaker, Williard Bundy, created an early time recording machine, which became popular with businesses. To sell his invention, often referred to as the Bundy Clock, Bundy started the Bundy Manufacturing Company. As with other inventions, like typewriters, cars, and cash registers, many companies wanted their inventions to be the ones that became the standard.

As the American landscape became dotted with large factories employing hundreds of workers, Bundy’s invention and others like it intrigued businesses. Employers adopted this equipment as an efficient, accurate, and standardized way to track employee attendance and working hours. Workers would record their start and end times for each workday, along with any breaks or periods of absence, and payroll departments would use this information to calculate wages and ensure compliance with labor laws.

wall mounted wood punch time clock manufactured by the International Time Recording Co Endicott City, New York
Early 20th century time recording clock from the Smithsonian’s American Enterprise exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Terrell)

There were other companies, besides the Bundy Manufacturing Company, in the time recording machine industry. These included the Willard & Frick Manufacturing Company, the International Time Recording Company, the Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America. Charles R. Flint, a highly successfully businessman, known as the “father of trusts,” and a backer of the Wright brothers, saw an opportunity. Flint, acquired several time recording machine companies, including the International Time Recording Company, and created the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). In 1924, CTR changed its name to one many today are familiar with — IBM.

One company I wanted to touch on a bit more, because it is important in the history of time recording machines, is the Tabulating Machine Company, which was founded by inventor Herman Hollerith. Hollerith’s invention is not a time recording machine per se, but is, in large part, why the word punching has become part of the time-keeping lexicon. Hollerith’s invention, an electromechanical tabulating machine, used punch cards like the one featured in the image at the top of this post, to keep track of numbers. Hollerith’s machines were notably used in Census tabulations for the 1890 Census and later the cards began to be used in punch time clocks to track hours worked.

Edison is faced to the wall with his hat on and a cigar in his mouth is punching his time card into the wooden time card machine with the pockets of other employees time cards fixed to the wall on either side of the machine
Thomas Edison punching time clock on February 11, 1921. (Prints and Photographs Division)

If you are interested in doing your own research on the companies mentioned or office equipment generally, we have a guide on doing research on historical companies and another on the history of office equipment.

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