It is not known
when the sundial was invented, or what people invented it. Sundials
can be found in many ancient civilizations, including the Babylonian,
Greek, Egyptian, and Roman ages.
record of the sundial can be found in the Bible as it is alluded to in
Job 7:2 "as a servant earnestly desireth the shadow," and the miracle
of the sundial of Ahaz is often quoted and referred to.
in most countries, in various forms, differing in construction
according to the knowledge of the age in astronomy and mathematics,
and showing clearly at different periods in the history of a race
evidence of influence by other civilizations with greater knowledge.
Sundials are also abundant in the far East such as China and Japan,
but not as much history of these is known to the Western world.
different theories concerning the rectification of the Babylonian
calendar in 747 B.C., nineteen years before the accession of King Ahaz,
but it is very likely that the sundial had a large role to play in
The oldest known
dials at present are those of Grecian origin, and for the most part
are of the hemicyclean form invented by the Chaldean Berosus, who
lived about 340 B.C. Four of these sundials were discovered in Italy:
one at Tivoli in 1746, another at Castel Nuovo in 1751, another at
Rignano in 1751, and the fourth at Pompeii in 1762. It is also evident
that this form of sundial was used by the Arabians (who gave great
study to gnomonics), and was also popular among the Romans.
writing in 443 B.C., says that the Greeks acquired their knowledge of
the sundial from the Babylonians; the Roman writers in turn give
evidence of their acquisition of this instrument from the Greeks.
Although the Romans were backward in the science of gnomonics and slow
to adopt any particular form of horologe, they eventually constructed
many beautiful sundials of various designs. The first sundial was
erected in Rome in the year 290 B.C., this being taken from the
Samnites by Papirius Cursor. Another was brought to Rome by Valerius
Messala from Catania in 261 B.C., but it was not until 164 B.C. that,
as far as we know, a dial constructed at Rome was set up by order of
Q. Marcius Phillipus.
in 48 B.C. to Tiro, mentions that he wished to place a sundial at his
villa in Tusculum, and at a later date we see Romans erecting sundials
in every possible corner of their villas and grounds.
known sundials in England are those of Saxon origin found on some of
the oldest churches. Most of the early examples are semi-circular, and
although the spaces into which the dial is divided vary considerably
in number and size, they seem to point to the practice of the early
Norseman dividing time into tides. And since it is known that they
divided the time into eight tides, and that the oldest horologes have
the fewest spaces, it seems more than likely that many dials so marked
owe their existence to these hardy invaders.
earliest English historian) records the fact that the hours were
shorter or longer according to the seasons, and this testimony is born
out by existing dials generally found built into ancient buildings.
Generally they are found on faced stones built into porches, windows,
and corners of buildings, and consist of circles and half-circles,
divided by lines which radiate from a hole in the center to the
circumference. The number of lines differ considerably and the spaces
are also of unequal size.
The Saxons used
the simple sundial long in use by the Vikings, who, being a maritime
race, founded the divisions of time on the ebb and flow of the tide.
First, the four tides, two high tides, and two low; then, further
improving this, they subdivided these divisions again into halves and
quarters, thus making the day and night equal to sixteen hours.
attributing the early semicircular dial to the Saxons, evidence
strongly points to the fact that the many-rayed circular dials are of
the medieval period. As years moved on the time of the face of the
dial was more divided, and moved from being quite plane in appearance
to gradually taking a more ornate shape.
continued to be erected long after clocks came into use, and in the
17th century many fine specimens were erected. Until watches began to
be made in numbers the sundial ruled supreme; clocks did not in any
way diminish their popularity, and if the truth be known doubtless
only helped to cause a greater number to be erected, since not only
could they be relied upon to keep accurate time, but also to serve for
the setting of a clock when it stopped.
introduce the sundial into our gardens more for an ornament than from
any wish to add it to a timekeeper, and it is the love of the antique
that causes old dials to change ownership and to be set up at new
sites. The marked interest that has been taken in the sundial during
recent years shows it has still a great future before it. If, then,
age can add to its value, and yet in nowise impair its reliability,
who will be without such a garden ornament that gives also a gentle
touch to what is already a beautiful possession?
More Sundial history from Benjamin Franklinů