As the name suggests, a time stamp at its most basic is an appliance that will record the date or time at which a specific event occurred. In the 21st century the term "timestamp" may also refer to the actual impression, be it digital or otherwise. The machine on this page was used primarily at the turn of the 20th century in commercial or industrial settings such as retail stores or factories. As its name suggests it has some automatic features unlike more basic alternatives, like the Bates Numbering Machine, which were either manual or, at best, semi-automatic.
It's inventor was Canadian-born John Cornelius Wilson (1851 - 1917). Wilson immigrated to the U.S. in 1869 and eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts. During his lifetime he was awarded over 100 patents, many for sophisticated devices such as telegraphy apparatuses. This time stamp was one of his simpler inventions. Wilson's first patent for it, no.527,918, was award in 1894, which related to the clockwork mechanism within. A later patent, no.576,644, awarded in 1897, was obviously more representative of the final product. Both patents were applied for in 1891 just a few months apart.
The time stamp was produced by Mr. Wilson's company, the Automatic Time Stamp Company of Boston, Massachusetts. It was established in 1880 at 160 Congress Street. The structure it once occupied has since been demolished. A parking lot was then erected in its place which was later also demolished. A public park is there currently.
Wilson's time stamp was able to record the time, day, month, year, type of transaction and company name as well as a couple user-specific identifying characters. For example, the stamp on this page recorded an item as shipped on July 25, 1908 at 8:18 by Instituts Solvay (Solvay Institute) of Bruxelles (Brussels). The characters to the top left and right of the stamp (the VP and the M) were meant to identify which person (maybe vice-president) or department (maybe maintenance) recorded the event. The dies are cast brass.
The part of the die that produces the company name and user-specific characters is static. The date may be adjusted manually to the day, month and year that's desired using the round dies towards the front of the machine. So too may the transaction type be manually adjusted using the cylindrical die towards the rear of the machine. The eight transaction types the stamp on this page has are "refused, approved, received, rec'd payment, shipped, packed, ordered, filed." I assume a customer could have ordered these to read anything they wanted.
"So what's so automatic about this time stamp?" you may ask. It's the time keeping mechanism. Inside the base of the machine is a brass, wind-up timer. To operate it, simply set the clock underneath to the desired start time and wind it up. There's a speed regulator under there, too. The internal gears are connected to the hour and minute hands of the die which move accordingly. A later model was available with a clock face on the front of the machine. The two were at one point produced concurrently, what I would refer to as base and premium models. The premium model was larger.
A 2" ribbon applied ink to the dies. It had to be advanced manually as required when it got too dry or worn.
Wilson used the basic design of his time stamp to develop industry-specific attachments for it, too. One such example that dated to ca.1902 was the Timometer, which was developed for the telephone industry. It was a device that could be mounted to one side of the ribbon spools and it was supposed to be able to log when toll-line conversations began and ended. The Timometer could be used with both the base and premium models.
The company survived after John C. Wilson's death for at least five more years into 1922. I couldn't find any proof that would suggest otherwise after then. Besides Boston, the company also had sales offices in New York and Chicago. As evident by the time stamp on this page, the company sold to foreign markets.