Sundials - World's Oldest Clocks

North American Sundial Society

nass news 2020 mar Jantar MantarGoogle Arts and Culture offers you to take a virtual tour of the 13th century observatory Jantar Mantar in Delhi. At the opening view (see the website link below), the Google tour explains: "Innovations in architectural astronomy: The Jantar Mantar Obervatory, Delhi's outdoor astronomical observatory is the earliest of five observatories built by Sawai Jai Singh II across India. It is dominated by a huge sundial and houses other innovative instruments that help plot the course of heavenly bodies...."

"The Maharaja designed four similar observatories in Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi to help and improve upon the studies of space and time. The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is now the largest among them." Google gives us a glipse of the large equatorial dial of the Man Singh Observatory in Varanasi and then focuses on the four large brick and plaster instruments at Jantar Mantar: the Ram yantra, two circular structures next to each other used to observe celestial objects; the Samrat yantra, one of the largest equatorial dials in the world with stairs leading to the top of the triangular gnomon (looking like stairs to the heavens) and surrounded by a large equatorial band to measure solar time; the Jai Prakash yantra that consist of two elaborate sunken hemispheres so large that there are stairs from the bottom leading between huge longitudinal bands; and the Misra yantra, which is shaped like a heart and is composed of five different sun and alignment instruments to determine the shortest and longest days of the year at the solstices.

Take a personal visit to these historic astronomical and solar instruments at: The Jantar Mantar Observatory - Google Arts & Culture

nass news 2019 dec harvard diptychFrom the Harvard Gazette - Dec 9, 2019 : "Since 1672 Harvard University has been acquiring scientific instruments for teaching and research. In 1948 the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments was established...[and has] grown to more than 20,000 objects making it one of the three largest university collections of its kind in the world"

As an illustration of the collection is a photograph of ivory pocket sundials shown here, made in Nuremberg, Germany between 1575 and 1645. These elegant diptych sundials represented the 16th and 17th century equivalent of pocket watches, especially for wealthy traveling merchants to keep track of time. "Harvard has the largest collection of sundials in North America, a gift of David P. Wheatland, Class of 1922."

As described by Dr. Sara Schechner in Time of Our Lives - Sundials of the Adler Planetarium who is the David P. Wheatland Curator of Historical Instruments at Harvard describes the diptych as "fashioned from ivory, gilt brass, carved wood, and wood covered by printed paper. The materials offer hints on the social status of their owners. So too do common and novel accessories found on the instruments. A directory of cities and their latitudes suggests an owner who traveled... The association is stronger when the diptych combines a gazetteer with particular sundials that found the time according to the sundry conventions of England, France, Germany, and Italy. A merchant crossing a border would have needed to know how to set up an appointment with his clients. How many hours would there be to transact business or to journey along the road? Calendrical devices on the diptych showed him the length of the day and night throughout the year...[and] the diptych's lunar volvelle gave ...the moon's phase. It also assisted the owner in finding the time by moonlight...[And] a diptych with a magnetic compass [allowed proper and immediate orienting the sundial]."

Read more at:

nass news 2019 april 1733 sundialIt started simply enough. Keith, a "treasure hunter" reported finding a 1733 sundial "in the Carolinas". ( The brass sundial about 5 or 6 inches in size was found crumpled and apparently had a number of modern attempts to solder a gnomon back onto the dial plate. Kieth reported, "When I found the piece it had been bent and damaged so I sent it to an expert in restoring metal objects....It has been the best find of my relic hunting career. I hope to get some detailed info from people who know about sundials."

The dial is done in the English style of the period, that is to say, the dial is cut as an octogon with a circular chapter ring with Roman numerals and delineated on the outside to the quarter hour. In the center is an 8-point compass rose with the cardinal points labelled "N,S,E,W". Four crude and somewhat modern screw holes held the dial to some modern base. The maker's initials D.D.M. are berlow the engraving of the original owner "Walter * Lane" with the date 1733.

As Kieth notes, "[The dial] is one of the earliest from southern colonial America". But the problem is where? The engraved latitude is "Latt: 34:30". Using Serle's ruler confirms that the delineated hour lines are between 34 and 35 degrees. That should allow a quick check of southern cities to identify the home of this dial. The center of population in the 1750's was Willmington, NC at 34:14. If we assume that William Lane was a farmer a person of means, then two possibilities arise: Blenheim SC and Laurens SC both at 34:30. Laurens County, in particular, was in the area where thousands of immigrants, mainly Scottish and Irish, settled in the pre-revolution Carolinas. Then there is Kershaw SC at 34:32 which was settled around 1732 by English traders and farmers who moved inland from Charleston. What was the provinance of this dial? We may never know, but you can search the below 1755 map from University of North Carolina library of historic maps for towns and river portsat:


A descendent of Walter Lane sent the following:  Walter Lane lived in New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina.  Apparently he left Maryland in the 1720's and by 1726 showed up in records of Craven County.  In 1729 he was listed as a Commisioner of New Bern, and probably a person of means.  The sundial could very possibly be his.  Looking at the map below, New Bern is just north of latitude 35 degrees on the mouth of the Neus [Neuse] river.  If we accept the latitude of the dial as 34:30, Walter lived about 35 miles south of New Bern, perhaps on a farm near Wilmington, S.C.  Old records show that much of South Carolina in 1734 was considered Craven County.

nass news 2019 april 1733 sundial map 1755

nass news 2019 march sodre astrolabeA team led by David Mearns reported on the oldest Mariner's Astrolabe in a recent article of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. During a 2013-2014 series of diving expeditions off the coast of Oman they discovered a Portugues solid leaded-gunmetal disk astrolabe. As the authors put it, "A well-documented and dramatic story from one of the earliest Portuguese foyages to India ... involves the loss off two naus [sailing vessels], the Esmeralda and Sao Pedro, which sank in shallow waters off the coase of a remote Omani Island in the Arabian Sea." What has made this legend is that these ships were part of a Portuguese armada to India led by the legendary explorer Vasco da Gama. Mearns tells the story that following the return of da Gamma and the main fleet to Portugal in February 1503, Vicente and Bras Sodre, uncles of da Gama, led their two ships back to patrol the waters off the south-west Indian coast. But Vicente sailed his squadron to the Gulf of Aden where they looted and burnt a handful of Arab ships. "Vicente then took his ships to Al Hallaniyah ...where they found a safe anchorage to shelter from the south-west monsoon...It was in this location, in May 1503, where a sudden and furious wind tore the two naus from their moorings and drove them against the rocky shoreline smashing their wooden hulls and causing the deaths of many crew, including the squadron commander Vcente Sodre"

Recovered from the ocean after 500 years was the 17.5 cm 344 gram metal Sodre astrolabe as well as more than 2000 other metal and ceramic artifacts. The were slowly desalinated over a period of two years. The astrolabe was clearly decorated with the Portuguese royal coat of arms at top and an esfera armilar (armillary sphere) at bottom. But there was no alidade or any visible gradations. Using laser imagery a total of 18 scale marks became visible along the limb of the upper right quadrant with a spacing of 5 degrees. These marks probably extended to make a full 90 degree quadrant. The solid metal Sodre astrolabe is a rarity, for shortly after 1500 a new generation of open ring astrolabes emerged. An illustration of a mariner's astrolabe from the Boria Chart (1529) shows a ring planisphere with angles marked for 180 degrees. The new open design remaind stable in the wind and became the dominant navigation instrument for the next 170 years. Read the full article at or a short condensed version at World’s Oldest Mariner’s Astrolabe Found | Archaeology |

nass news 2019 march tanahat monestaryLast February in the Panorama Armenian News an article reviewed some of the oldest sundials in Armenia. Piliposyan, Doctor of History at the Preservations Service for Historic-Cultural Reserve-Museums and Historic Environment (SNCOT) related that the oldest sundial may be on the Zvartnots temple dating to the 7th century. Sundials have been preserved on buildings of Dsegh, Tsakhkadzor, Dilijan, Noyemberyan as well as Nagorno Karabakh churches. Sundial also were curved on khachkars [Armenian cross-stones]. In the Panorama article Piliposyan said that apart from serving as clocks, sundials served as a means of communicating with god. He brought the example of the Zvartnots temple sundial found during excavations with enclosed documents calling on prayers to talk to god whatever time it was.

The vertical dials had horizontal gnomons and on the dial face there are typically 12 equally spaced divisions to mark the hours. Frank King commented on the dials that "These are variants of the standard European sundials used for indicating 'unequal [temporal] hours', at least approximately, in medieval times. Several thousand survive in England alone. They divide the daylight period from sunrise to sunset into 12 parts. Unfortunately, these parts are not equal in time and their relationship varies with the time of year....The examples in the photographs seem very nicely made."

To appreciate the Medieval Armenian dials as well as modern interpretations, visit

The Frederick Douglass home, also know as Cedar Hill, is located at 1411 W  Street, SE in Anacostia. After Douglass' death in 1895, his widow Helen Pitts Douglass (a suffragist and abolitionist) founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in 1900. In 1916, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs joined with the association and jointly owned the house until 1962.

One of the Colored Women's Clubs, the Married Women's Culture Club of Pittsburgh, contributed a sundial to the Douglass House in 1922 when it was opened as a national museum. The sundial contains a challenging motto: "My face marks the sunny hours.  What can you say of yours?"

According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette by Mark Holan ( "The reasons that the Married Women’s Culture Club chose a sundial to donate to Cedar Hill are unknown. Having 'secured the dial and prior to sending it east for installation at the grounds,' the club held a July 9, 1922, dedication ceremony at Pittsburgh’s Euclid Avenue A.M.E. Church,' according to The Pittsburgh Press.... Just three Augusts after the Cedar Hill ceremony, more than 30,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Even in the darkest of times, however, the Pittsburgh women’s gift of that sundial at Cedar Hill has marked the sunny hours."

You can read more about the history of the Douglass House and see a photo of the 1922 sundial at  The photo taken by Allen Browne shows the dial has survived the years well, except that someone has reinstalled the gnomon backwards.

Barnwell SundialIn this age of smartphones and digital wrist watches, the Barnwell Sundial in front of the Court House in Barnwell, South Carolina continues to tell accurate time. As reported by the television stations WRDW and WAGT,  "It was put up in 1858 after it was given to the county by state senator Joseph D. Allen. The sundial keeps very accurate standard time, even though that wasn't established until 1884. [Telling standard time is possible through Equation of Time corrections listed on the face of the dial.]  The courthouse that is located near it burnt down in 1865, but the sundial stood tall.  In 1918, still in it's original location, a concrete curbing was built around the sundial to protect it from traffic. Over the years, it was restored and fixed up."

See the video of Phill Huggins tell about how he got the opportunity to restore the sundial.

With the Masters Tournament playing in Augusta and the return of Tiger Woods, many golf enthusiasts think back to other great players.  One of the greatest was Bobby Jones.  John Steinbreder writes about a sundial in his honor, "Another reminder of Jones here [at the Augusta National Golf Club] is a small bronze statue just 18 1/2 inches in height that is part of a working sundial outside the Member Golf Shop and just across from the first tee. The effigy boasts a rich, brown patina and etched across the lower part of the sundial are the words: 'Slow Back, Time Right.'

Back in the 60's Pete Pascale found the statue and dial in a scrap metal dumping ground in Erie, Pensylvannia.  After cleaning and repairing the statue, he gave it to Rick and Hank DeDionisio who ran Ricardo's Restaurant in Erie.  The brothers were avid golfers and in turn presented the figure and dial to their Downing Golf Club.  As Steinbreder writes,"...the brothers and club hit upon the idea of offering the statue to Augusta National, because of their admiration of Jones. They asked John May, a senior editor at Golf Digest, to act as an intermediary, and the journalist contacted Roberts in a letter dated May 18, 1972. Some time later, the Sundial took its place outside the Member Golf Shop."

Read about August National and the Sundial at:

It is believed that Edwin E. Codman, the English artist crafted the piece in the 1930s, using Jones as the model for the figure. Codman spent the early part of his life in England working at the Gorham foundry, creating small exquisite bronze sculptures.  In 1931 he moved to Dorset, Vermont where he and his wife lived quietly until his death in 1955.  Looking at history, Bobby Jones won fame between 1923 to 1930, culminating with the Grand Slam that included the British Amateur and British Open.  It is very plausible that Codman made the sculpture and sundial in 1930 to recognize the fame of this retiring golfer.

The real story behind the Bobby Jones sundial is ultimately instructive for the world of golf: In Augusta, it doesn't tell correct time, even solar time.  If Codman made the sundial in the UK, it explains the angle of the golf club shaft, closer to the latitude angle of London at 51 degrees rather than 42 (Erie, PA) and certainly not 36 degrees (Augusta, GA).  This may be confirmed by the face of the dial, where the hours span from 4am to 8pm, allowing for the variation of sunlight in England, not Georgia.

So the joke is on all those golfers who look to the Bobby Jones sundial, as the only time telling device on the course: it has never told correct time (except for noon) in Augusta and never will.  It would be fun to get a rubbing of the dial face to prove it runs on London time.   

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