Sundials - World's Oldest Clocks

North American Sundial Society

Memorial Sundials

Sundials are used as memorials to signify light and hope.  Some are in cemetaries and small parks, others are at scenic vistas, and others are integrated into the fabric of our cities and towns.  All are important and lasting symbols.

Today it is snowing in Washington DC and it brings to mind a winter some 43 years ago when the Washington Monument was turned into a sundial.  Over the years many have proposed turning this spiring monument into a sundial.  For example at the first North American Sundial Society (NASS) Conference in 1995 Robert Terwilliger drew a map of the shadow's excursion from Independence Avenue to E Street NW, repeated here at left. In June 2011 in the NASS Quarterly Journal The Compendium Robert Kellogg suggested that "...the precise shadow lines drawn in [Terwilliger's map] are precise geometrical constructs.  The problem is the sun is not a point source, but a disk about 1/2 degree in diameter.  The result is the sun casts a penumbral (partial) shadow when it is partially obscured, resulting in a range of light to dark sunlight that blurs the edges of shadow, making a gradient from light to dark.

To get a feeling for the impact of the penumbral shadow from the Washington Monument, we start with a brief summary of the Monument:   A competition was held in 1836 and won by architect Robert Mills who designed a tall obelisk.  Excavation began in early 1848 and the cornerstone was laid as part of the 4th of July ceremony by the Freemasons.  Lack of funds created a hiatus in construction in 1858, and finally the capstone to create a pyramidal point to the obelisk was laid December 6th, 1884. The obelisk as we see it today is 169.29 meters tall, 16.8 meters wide at the base and 10.5 meters wide at the start of the capstone pyramid.  The pyramid itself is 17m tall, with a small aluminum capstone at the tip and by the time the sun is sufficiently blocked by the top of the oblesk for us to see the shadow, the sun is well below the tip.

Washington Monument with Google ShadowIn The Atlantic on-line issue of May 23, 2014 Robinson Meyer found that the Washington Monument captured the imagination of Google Map engineers: "Ken Norton, a partner in Google Ventures, reports that the digital shadow has reflected the real shadow’s position for about three years. [now, 6 years] It’s a fun accent, possible only with the kind of live, dynamic map that Google deploys...Google didn’t need to add the monument’s shadow, but it did, as a kind of homage to the world’s hidden-in-plain-sight details. Of course, Google’s unknown mapmaker wasn’t the first to notice the monument’s shadow. 'As an artist, one of the things that I do...and I think most artists traditionally have done...is point out things people don’t see.' ”

Which brings us back to the snowing day 43 years ago on February 11, 1974 when Yuri Schwebler decided to turn the Washington Monument into a sundial. In her article Meyer continues: "He was, by day, a newspaper layout designer...[but] before Google made its sundial for the screen, Schwebler turned the monument into a real (gigantic!) one in the winter of 1974:"

Schwebler said, "One day I realized I’d never seen the shadow of the Washington Monument because it’s so huge. And then one day I looked for it, and I saw it, and it moved. I was at the end of the shadow, and it moves about four feet every minute."  His materials for such a transformation? According to CBS, $24, six feet of snow, and a plow on loan from the National Park Service. During the report, Schwebler, who died in 1990, is asked why he turned the monument into a sundial at all. His answer?  "You can actually see the Earth move, or feel it move, by watching that shadow."

Click on the video above or watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_M5WXcVsfIk to see Walter Cronkite of CBS news report on the Washington Monument as a giant sundial.

Campbell Univ Commemorative SundialMathematics professor Jerry Duncan Taylor passed away in 2013, but his 46 years of teaching lives on at Campbell University in Buies Creek North Carolina just south of Raleigh.   A commemorative sundial in front of Taylor-Bott Rogers Fine Arts Building was dedicated on Wednesday, March 21, 2016.

The highly polished dial, approximately 12 inches square, with an inclined bar gnomon sits on a plinth embedded in a low brick wall for all to see.  There are time marks for every 10 minutes, with standard time given as Roman numerals and daylight savings time one hour later given in larger Arabic numbers.  

Professor and mathematics department chair Meredith Williams recalled the start of his teaching career at Campbell: "I'm not sure I would have made it through my first semester without Dr. Taylor. I had an extremely challenging group of students in a class who were determined to see how hard they could push the new professor.  Dr. Taylor always had an encouraging word for me before I went to class."

Rachel Davis quoted Provost Mark Hammond from the sundial dedication (http://www.campbell.edu/news/item/sundial-dedicated-to-late-math-professor) "We wanted something physical that we could see, celebrate, and reflect on him and the good man that he is and the way he has touched many of the people here... [his] very inspired spouse, Louise Taylor, thought that perhaps we could memorialize Jerry through a sundial.  It gives us the time to pause and reflect and think about Jerry."

The large analemmatic sundial in front of the Harton Theater North Entrance of Southern Arkansas University (SAU) is being formally dedicated on Thursday, November 5th, 2016 in memory of the late David Thomas Smith, a 1957  SAU alum and  retired assistant director of the SAU Physical Plant.

The Smith Sundial, funded by family and friends of David Smith was built by the SAU Department of Art and Design and engineers of the SAU Physical Plant.  Patrick Finney was the construction supervisor and Steven Ochs was the project concrete art designer and craftsman.  As described in the NASS Sundial Registry, Dial #800 is "a 22 by 17 foot analemmatic dial of stained concrete with Arabic hour numerals of polished brass.  The dial perimeter and hour numerals are set in a blue decorative polymer "U" arc, appearing as a large mule shoe that represents the university Muleriders mascot symbol.  Dial colors represent the royal blue and gold school colors."

As reported by Southern Arkansas University, "The Smith Sundial at SAU is one of only four Arkansas sundials that are registered on the North American Sundial Society, and the only one outside of Little Rock and North Little Rock. It is also the only sundial in the state that is [a monumental] analemmatic..."

Read more at: https://web.saumag.edu/news/2015/10/28/sau-to-dedicate-smith-sundial-on-nov-5/

Anthem Veterans Memorial
Sun Alignment on Nov 11th
[photo: Anthem Veterans Memorial Committee and Mike Spinelli]

The Anthem Veterans Memorial in Anthem, AZ was dedicated on November 11, 2011 at 11am (11-11-11 11:11:11) to honor the service and sacrifice of the United States armed forces and to provide a place of honor and reflection for veterans, their family and friends. Veterans gather here annually on November 11th to watch a solar alignment at 11:11am when the sun precisely illuminates The Great Seal of the United States. The memorial was designed by Renee Palmer-Jones, and constructed under the guidance of Project Engineer Jim Martin and construction expert Steve Rusch.

Read more: November 11th Veterans Memorial

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Bracewell Memorial Sundial at VLA
Photo Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

In 1961 Professor Ronald Bracewell at Stanford University created an X shaped array (called a “Chris-Cross array” for W.R. “Chris” Christiansen) using 32 10-foot diameter dish antennas to form a radio spectroheliograph nestled in the hills of Palo Alto, California. 

Read more: VLA Sundial Memorial

nass_news_2013_sep_hampton_dial-2Tom Carpenter, a member of the Hampton fire company for 44 years, presented plans for a 9/11 memorial to the Borough Council at the beginning of 2012 and Councilman James Cregar began designing the memorial as a sundial using beams recovered from Ground Zero of the Twin Towers.

Read more: 9/11 Timeless Sundial Dedicated In Hampton, N.J.

nass_news_2012_sep_CrontonMemorialDialOn September 11, 2012 the Town of Cortlandt and the Villages of Buchanan and Croton-on-Hudson in New York will dedicate a giant sundial as part of a 9-11 memorial using steel salvaged from the World Trade Center site.  All are welcome to the dedication.

Visitors attending the dedication of the Buchanan*Cortlandt*Croton-on-Hudson (BCC) 9-11 Remembrance Memorial are asked to assemble at 2:30 pm at the Croton Landing parking lot and walk the 1/2 mile to the memorial site for the 3 o’clock ceremony.  A van will be available for those who wish to ride. For further information, please call the Project Director, Janet Mainiero at 914-271-8222.

Read more: 9-11 Memorial Sundial Dedicated at Croton Landing

nass_news_2012_june_fischer_sundial
[photo courtesy of volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory ]

On Saturday, June 9th 2012, the volunteers of the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, CT, dedicated a 9-foot stainless steel sundial as the centerpiece of “Galileo’s Garden” adjacent to the John J. McCarthy Observatory. The sundial was built and dedicated in memory of Kathleen Fischer, a sixth-grade science teacher who inspired many students to pursue science. 

The sundial is an open armillary, with an adjustable hour band for standard and daylight time. At the tip of the gnomon is a bronze and brass true-size rendering of Galileo’s first telescope, honoring the 400 years since Galileo explored the heavens.  The North American Sundial Society was privileged to donate to this effort.

Read more: Fischer Dial Dedicated in New Milford, CT