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IBM Dial Recorders and Labour Day

September 6, 2011

One of my favourite projects this past summer at the Canada Science and Technology Museum was working closely with a few of the clocks in the collection. I was particularly fascinated with the IBM Dial Recorder, which was manufactured in the company’s former plant in Don Mills.  I was thinking about this object a little today on Labour Day as this type of clock played a significant role in monitoring workers during much of the early 20th Century.

When considering the effects of Scientific Management or “Taylorism” which was a process created by Frederick Taylor to synchronize work performance in 19th Century American steel machine shops, clocks such as the Dial Recorder played a major role in keeping track of overall production.

As historian Carlene E. Stephens of the Smithsonian Institute has suggested, these pieces were seen as a successor to management methods of judging a worker’s tardiness based on whether or not the employee was outside the factory gates at starting time. The Dial Recorders in turn became a prelude to the modern punch card clock; a more modern device which emerged in North America shortly after the Second World War.

Many such objects are fantastic representations of labour history and speak to how the organization of time became  closely associated with the industrialization of the West. It is widely held that engineers and managers often took much tighter control of the output in the workplace by using of timing devices to measure how long it took for each stage of a working process to be completed. This in turn gave managers an understanding of how long it would take for a given product to be finished. Such leaders as Taylor believed that this would drive up production and hence improve the livelihood of everybody at the factory. Of course in reality, it stirred labour unrest in many cases and often led to worker revolts due to the feeling that they were being dehumanized by their bosses.

As for the Dial Recorder’s function, every worker was  given a number, which was indicated on the iron wheel. A large arm (which is missing from this particular recorder) was then swung to the worker’s assigned number, and then the worker would push a pin through the appropriate hole. A bell then rung from the recorder and the employee’s number and time in/out information was printed on a large paper roll inside the recorder.

This particular model is one of the larger versions that IBM manufactured, as is evident by it having over 100 numbers. IBM information sheets show that it typically made Dial Recorders with either 50, 100, or 150 numbers. For numbers reaching as high as this CSTM model, it is probably safe to assume that it was used in a very large factory. Museum records unfortunately don’t reveal where such a location might have been. (As a side note, the Canadian Clock Museum has indicated that it has a similar model which was obtained from a large lumbering camp near Petawawa).


I must offer my utmost gratitude to the advice and information provided by Allan Symons of the Canadian Clock Museum in Deep River, Ontario who made time out of the busy tourist season to address some of my specific questions.  I am developing a paper on this subject in the coming weeks for the CSTM, which  has in its possession at least two of these types of artifacts.

Another great source was Stephens’s book “On Time: How America Learned to Live by the Clock” which was distributed by the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of American Heritage. Accompanying online information regarding this clock can be seen here .

My photo collection of this clock and others can be seen here .

IBM, which coincidentally turned 100 years old this year, provided a huge amount of historical information and consultation as well, as can be seen from its Clock Reference Room. Amazing stuff.
More to come on this subject, but for now, some “time” and “working man” related licks….


Woody Guthrie’s Ludlow Massacre

Rush’s Working Man

Pink Floyd’s Time

John Lennon’s Working Class Hero

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