These 19th century textile mill's "behavior blocks" were made to shame employees' "exceeding naughtiness"

Robert Owen (1771-1858), the Welsh social reformer, was a man of many ideas — some groundbreaking, some peculiar. He spearheaded the cooperative movement and advocated for better working conditions, shorter hours, and improved education. But one of his more eccentric creations was the "Silent Monitor" at his New Lanark textile mill in Scotland, which he used to influence the conduct of his 2,500 employees.

Imagine showing up to work and finding a small, four-sided wooden block hanging above your station. Each side painted a different color: white, yellow, blue, and black.

From Robert Owen and His Social Philosophy, by William Lucas Sargant (1860):

This consisted of a four-sided piece of wood, about two inches long and one broad ; with the sides painted respectively, black, white, yellow, and blue: one of these instruments being hung up near every person employed. The 2,500 toys had their positions arranged every day, according to the conduct of each worker during the preceding day: white indicating superexcellence; yellow, moderate goodness; blue, a neutral condition of morals; and black, exceeding naughtiness.

Owen believed this system would promote good behavior and reduce the need for traditional punishment. Yet, despite his lofty ideals, he couldn't entirely do away with punitive measures. Fines were levied for "irregular familiarities between the sexes," and he even attempted to curb New Year's drinking by offering a day's pay to abstainers and docking a day's pay from those who indulged.

So, did the Silent Monitor work? Owen thought so. Over time, he observed a gradual shift from black and blue to more whites and yellows, indicating better behavior — or so he believed. Critics and workers likely found the system laughable, extracting amusement from their boss's whimsical social experiment.

Previously: Elon Musk thinks people should work in factories 24 hours a day

[Via Futility Closet]