Watchclocks: Studies in behavioral control

If you’ve ever wandered around an older building you’ll notice something that looks like an ashtray bolted to the wall. These ashtrays, which usually say something like “Watch Station,” once held keys to wind up a watchclock, a mechanical wonder that forced the night watchman to make his rounds through the building under mechanical supervision.

As you moved through the building carrying the clock you would have to fit each key into the watchclock. The clock then noted the time and location of each winding, ensuring that the watchman didn’t just bugger off and drink whiskey.

From a mechanical perspective, it’s a pretty cool system. From a UI nerd perspective, its an example of a rails shooter or a “behavioral control:”

From a behavioral perspective, I find the watchclock fascinating not simply because it’s a kind of steampunk GPS, a wind-up mechanical location-awareness technology. I’m further fascinated at how this holistic system of watchclocks, keys, guards, and supervisors succeeded so completely in creating a method of behavioral control such that a human being’s movements can be precisely planned and executed, hour after hour and night after night, with such a high degree of reliability that almost a century goes by before anyone thinks of ways of improving the system as originally conceived. The watchclock is a primitive form of technology-mediated interaction design and narrowly-focused social engineering: The “interface” is the whole system: The watchclock, keys, and paper records.

I’m going to get a kit put into my house so I can make the rounds between our two bathrooms during the day.