What Is a Manual Time Clock?

Elizabeth West

Sometimes called a punch clock, a manual time clock is a device that records employee shift times via a punch card inserted into the device at specific times. This enables employers to keep track of hours worked and keep accurate records for payroll or legal purposes, preventing potentially costly errors. Some modern systems are computerized and use digital bar codes, magnetic cards or even biometrics to capture the information when an employee clocks in and out.

Traditional clocks and watches use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.
Traditional clocks and watches use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.

The manual time clock incorporates a timekeeping device and a punch or stamp that marks a card inserted in a slot below the clock face. They require users to push a button or pull a lever on the top or side of the unit in order to enable the punch. Paper time cards with spaces for each punch are assigned to each employee. The clock either clips a piece of paper out of the designated area, which already may be marked with a time and date, or stamps that information on the card itself.

Employee pulling her punch card to clock in.
Employee pulling her punch card to clock in.

Companies can buy a manual time clock from manufacturers who also provide them with accessories such as time card racks to hold cards neatly beside the clock, the cards themselves, and ink ribbons for time/date stamp units. The clock requires a key to open it and change the setup, which is usually held by management or a member of the company's human resources department. It is generally mounted on the wall or a shelf near where employees enter or leave the facility.

Keeping track of actual work time helps companies save money. Before the manual time clock was invented in 1888 by Willard Bundy, a New York jeweler, supervisors had to total up time by hand. This often resulted in errors from overestimating or underestimating employee pay. A manual time clock is ideal for a small company with fewer employees, since cost is minimal and is easy to use.

With any time clock there is still the possibility of error, if the clock is not calibrated properly, or if employees engage in dishonest practices. Overstamping, where one time is stamped over another, obscuring it, also makes tabulating difficult from manual time clock punch cards. Some companies are moving toward electronic options for timekeeping. Plastic cards with digital bar codes, magnetic stripes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) are sometimes issued to employees, allowing them to swipe in their time as they enter and leave. Some companies with high security needs may use biometric units that contain fingerprint or eye readers, combining access control with timekeeping.

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