History of the Sundial

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.

The oldest 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.

Sundials exist 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.

There are 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 this.

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.

Herodutus, 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.

Cicero, writing 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.

The earliest 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.

Bede (the 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.

While 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.

Sundials 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.

Today we 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?

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  Sundial History