Clocks, calculators, measuring tapes, and scales—tools for measurement and calculation have long been important for people to accomplish tasks at work, school, and home. A new display in the 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries considers the role designers played in shaping such devices in the twentieth century, with examples from the 1920s-1980s. On one hand, these objects demonstrate how many designers aimed to make tools that are simple to use and easy to read, such as the streamlined kitchen clock and timer that Isamu Noguchi designed for Measured Time, Inc. in the early 1930s. At the same time, these designs bring to light how measurement and calculation have been closely linked to the human body in the twentieth century, as this post explores.
Though the practice of timekeeping extends back thousands of years, new strategies of labor management emerged in the early twentieth century that placed particular emphasis on keeping track of time and bodies in tandem. In the United States, labor theorists Frederick Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth introduced and popularized methods of scientific management. In particular, they used time and motion studies to first evaluate workers’ behavior, and then modify it for maximum efficiency.  The Gilbreths developed the chronocyclograph, which used small electric lights attached to workers’ bodies to produce images of tasks being accomplished over time. The idea was that through such studies, inefficient ways of working could be identified and replaced with standard practices that would increase productivity at work and at home.