History of Time Tracking

Time tracking is one of the most essential aspects of when it comes to improving productivity.

Employee time tracking has been around for thousands of years. It’s been one of the most valuable aspects of humankind. Though the versions of it that we’re familiar with have AI components, automation, and are electronic, it wasn’t always like this.

In this article, we’ll discuss the history and evolution of time management and what eventually lead to the employee time tracking we know today.

Egyptian Obelisks

Egyptian Obelisks

Obelisks are tall, four-sided stone pillars with a pyramid-shaped top. Some of the earliest attempts of using obelisks to track time date back to around 3500 BC. Egyptians used the shadows it cast when the sun hit it to divide their days into two halves based on noon.

Cuneiform writing

Egyptian obelisks were one of the first known forms of time tracking. But it wasn’t until around 3300 BC that cuneiform writing, the earliest form of writing, documented the wages employees would get as compensation for their work. Common forms of payment involved food such as barley. There’s also evidence that aside from food, workers were also paid with beer.

Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi, created around 1754 BC, is one of the oldest written laws. Some of its laws required specific wages to be paid for specific occupations. Also, payments differed for the different classes in society at that time: wealthy, free-born, and slaves.

For example, doctors would get paid ten shekels for attending to a wealthy patient. However, if the patient was a freed mad or slave, he’ll only receive five or two shekels, respectively, when performing the same operation.


Similar to the obelisks, sundials, used around 1500 BC, also relied on the sun’s movement to track time. Each sundial was divided into 12 equal sections to measure time, as the sun moved from the east to the west. Then at noon, they’ll rotate it 180° so they can start tracking the afternoon hours.

Water clocks

Developed around the same century as sundials, water clocks were invented because it did what sundials couldn’t do, track time at night. It uses water that drips into a reservoir at a consistent pace and would track time using a marker inside the containers. Many centuries later, astronomers developed it further by creating intricate devices and using bells and gongs to indicate times of the day.


Merkhets, developed around 600 BC, was similar to the water clocks and helped ancient Egyptian astronomers to tell time at night. It used a straight bar and plumb line. Two were lined up to establish North-South direction, which was then used to track the movement of stars. Wherever the stars were relative to the North-South meridian, astronomers could determine what time it was.

Mechanical clock

One of the earliest accountings for mechanical clocks was around 725 AD in China, however since it was made with water, some of its components started to corrode and cold weather would freeze the water. Around two hundred years later in 976 AD, another astronomer used the same clock. However, instead of using water, he used mercury. In 1088 AD, a 30-foot tall clock with a celestial globe used for observing the stars, this time tracking system used tablets to measure the time of the day.


Studying pendulum movements dates back to around 1582. However, it wasn’t until 1656 that the first successful pendulum clock was created with an error of less than one minute a day. Then fourteen years later, what was later known as the grandfather clock was created. One of the most accurate time tracking systems up to this point in time.

Time clock

During the industrial revolution, more farmers moved to the cities for work. Also, during this time, child labor was popular because it didn’t cost business owners much money, children were easier to persuade than adults, and could do jobs that adults physically couldn’t. So, for very little pay, children would work long hours in dangerous, hot conditions.

Time clock

After years of horrific accidents occurring in the workplace, the government took action and limited the number of hours children could work. Thus came the need for an employee time tracking system that tracked the number of hours worked. And with the introduction of time clocks in 1888, people started getting paid for the hours they worked, not on a fixed project or daily basis.

For nearly a century, employers continued using punch cards to track their employees’ time though the systems became more convenient and smaller.

Modern employee time tracking systems

With the growth of the Dot Com boom, other time tracking systems such as spreadsheets, mobile devices, biometric time clocks, and desktop and cloud-based software emerged.


As more employers started implementing computers in their workplace, more of them allowed their employees to use Excel-based timesheets to manually keep track of their time. And some of those switched from punch cards because they were expensive to upkeep and repair.


Employees would keep track of the time they clocked in and how long it took them to complete tasks. While this method was significantly cheaper than punch cards, it was a flawed, inaccurate timesheet tracker.

Desktop time tracking software

Desktop time tracking software

Once employers realized that they couldn’t get accurate information from spreadsheets, some switched over to desktop time tracking software. The tool allowed employees to automatically track their time spent working. However, like any on-premises software, the data that was collected on that computer, isn’t easily shareable across devices. So, if employees experience computer issues, it’s likely their time tracking data was lost.

Cloud-based time tracking software

Around the early 2000s was when SaaS time tracking software systems started emerging. They were automatic, cloud-based solutions that allowed employees to accurately track their time without wasting it. And since it’s cloud-based, they can easily transfer their data from one computer to the next if malfunctions occurred.

Cloud-based time tracking software

Nowadays, some SaaS time tracking systems also include project management, payroll, employee scheduling, and employee monitoring functionalities so employers can have an all-inclusive time tracking software solution.

Additionally, some cloud-based employee time tracking solutions offer mobile tracking. Although it’s not a common method, for some industries, like construction, it’s how they ensure efficiency and monitor where their field workers are.

Biometric time clocks

Biometric time clocks exist to eliminate some of the common problems that traditional time clocks caused. Some of the most popular types of biometric time clocks are fingerprints, voice, and facial recognition. Other types are iris scans and palm prints.

Biometric time clocks

One of its many advantages is that it practically eliminates buddy punching since clocking into work requires your employee’s biometric data. However, it’s effectiveness comes with a hefty price tag.


How we track time and the reasons why we do has astronomically changed from what they once were over 5,000 years ago. Before we relied on the Sun to measure day and night and now we use it to accurate calculate billable hours.

There’s no guarantee where the future of time tracking would lead to. No one knows, but what we do know is that there’s always an innovative way to increase efficiency. And as long as humans are around, we won’t stop trying to find it.

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