past of equipment tacking

The history of equipment tracking: The Past (Part I)

How much things do I have? And where are they?

Simple questions, but they can be surprisingly difficult to answer. For thousands of years people have been trying to track the items they own & use. In three blog posts we will look at the past, present and future of equipment tracking.

No tracking without writing

As a Sumerian sheep farmer in 3000 BC the only way to know how many sheep you have is to count them each day. Unless you could somehow permanently record that number. Writing was born out of this need to record quantities of livestock and other goods.

Sumerian item tracking

Tracking items only becomes possible once you can keep track of quantities, locations, owners, … This also means that you can become more efficient.

Instead of one shepherd taking care of a dozen sheep, a merchant might employ a dozen people to take care of 200 sheep. He now has written proof of how many sheep he has and where they should be.

While we gave up on writing on clay tablets a while ago, the principle has remained the same: write down what is where. This system has many advantages over “Ug told me he has 10 sheep and Og told me he has 7” but it is not without drawbacks.

Asset tracking ledger
  • Only a limited number of destructible copies – one flood or fire and you are back to counting sheep until you fall asleep
  • No direct connection between the information and the actual items
  • Difficult to coordinate information between multiple people, especially over longer distances
  • Information retrieval is only possible when you have the document with you, which might leave you in the dark when you most need information

Writing was a big step forward for equipment tracking (and a lot of other things) but there was still a lot of room for improvement!

Mark to track

A 19th-Century cowboy had one way to know which of the thousands of cattle on the open prairies were his: check their brand.

Item marking brand

Creating a (semi)permanent mark of ownership on assets makes them a lot easier to track. A cowboy in the field can answer at least one important question – “Is this my cow?”

Branding or marking reconnects an item with information about itself:

  • What is the item
  • Who owns it
  • Where is the item supposed to go
  • Where does it come from

This is a clear improvement over having only one central repository of information, disconnected from the items or equipment.

One major challenge is that information stored on the item and information stored elsewhere are not kept in sync. Change your mind and decide a shipment should go to Hawaii instead of Alaska? Too bad, the box still says it’s going to Alaska.

Ancient though writing & marking may be, these two methods are still often the primary methods for asset tracking. Perhaps it’s time for a change?

Tracking bits & bytes

Microsoft released the first version of Excel for Macintosh on September 30, 1985. While spreadsheet programs existed before, Excel became the market leader. It is now almost synonymous with the concept of spreadsheets in general.

Macintosh Excel equipment management

The uses for Excel are almost unlimited, but we are most interested in equipment tracking. Its advantages over paper-based tracking are clear:

  • A shared template for tracking can be shared indefinitely
  • Updates can be shared almost instantly through email
  • Information can be changed or updated as needed

At the same time spreadsheets are still far from ideal for tracking physical goods:

  • Multiple, conflicting versions of a single file can circulate at the same time
  • Spreadsheets are good for recording the current state of an item, but not so for tracking its history
  • Numbers reign supreme in spreadsheets, leaving little room for pictures, maps, long descriptions,…

Want to know more about why spreadsheets are outdated for equipment tracking? Then take a look at our earlier blog post about this subject.

Up next

In the next blog post we will look at the current state of equipment tracking. What is possible, what isn’t and what are the major challenges?

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Goodbye Spreadsheets,

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