The story of the sundial is a fascinating one. It’s a story with a trailing legacy, yet no
For as long as the universe has existed, so has time–yet perhaps not the same time we
conceptualize today. For there were no years, no months, no hours or minutes.
Time simply was–a nebulous flow untamed and untapped.
It existed as an abstract force–an unnamable constant with no form–which is how it would
remain until the advent of the early human mind, a unique child of nature capable of unlocking
and channeling the potential of the world and forces around it. In the earliest days, the sundial
took the humble form of a mere stick in the ground, casting a shadow which rotated about its
base as the sun moved across the sky.
When humanity realizes a need, we mold our reality to accommodate it. Thus was the first
sundial, a tool with which to tame and give meaning to (create, some might say) the concept of
Technology advanced, as it always does, but through the ages humanity clung tightly to the
sundial. Rather than a simple tool, the sundial became an exchange with nature–a water wheel
designed to harness the eternal power of the flowing stream of the heavens, channeling nature,
but never commanding it. We relied on the natural world, for without the sun the sundial would
go dormant, as would we. Sundial and man were both nourished and given their power by the
sun, thus creating a sort of fraternal equality.
Through the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance periods, sundials advanced more rapidly than
ever: they gained the ability to act as calendars, account for the variance of the earth’s path
around the sun, and fit snugly into the pockets of most citizens of the world. The Renaissance
ushered in a golden age, and more than ever it was apparent that the sundial was not
subservient to man, but an ambassador for his partnership with nature.
To read a sundial, one must endure the same conditions it faces and take care to properly orient
the device. Care is taken, and the user must work for the device if they expect the device to
work for them. For example, direct sunlight is essential, and dialists had no choice but to travel
to locations which satisfied their dial’s needs. Though a device created by humanity, humanity
wasn’t placed above their creation; if one wished to check the time, he first must accommodate
his dial, stepping out into the elements alongside it. This creates an equal balance of service
between man and his creation, keeping the user grounded and closely attentive to the natural
forces which permit the sundial to function.
As timekeeping advanced and more sophisticated mechanisms overtook the sundial, however,
that equality was disrupted. Technology has since become something to be wielded beyond all
else; not the give and effortful take it once was. In the words of Margaret and R. Newton
Mayall, authors of Sundials Their Construction and Use, “[sundials are] reminiscent of a more
leisurely existence when ‘time waited for no man’, whereas today no man waits for time.” Now
that our timekeeping technology does not directly depend on the sun, we seem to have placed
ourselves above it. No longer must we step outside or wait for a clear sky to check the time,
rather we can do so with ease with a downward glance, even in the darkest of rooms or the
cloudiest of days.
Though convenience may be confused with superiority, change always sports a double edge:
mechanical clocks and digital devices are unsurpassed in their convenient utility, but they also
serve to obscure time as a concept. Rather than being a natural force we harness, time has
become a simple accessory, tamed and singular in its purpose to serve us. Time has become
enslaved on our wrists, but taking the time to admire the older devices gives us a glimpse not
only into the past, but into nature and the partnership we once shared and share once more
every time a sundial is used.
To use a sundial is to view time as it truly is: a chaos focused through the lens of engineering. A
shadow casting stick means little on its own, but when meticulously marked and oriented, it
clearly tells time. When looking upon a sundial, one can’t help but understand its mechanics:
the shadow (or other marker depending on the type of dial) moves across the hour marked
surface because of the sun’s apparent motion across the sky. It is a simple system, but an
ingenious one. Consider now the modern smartphone. While perhaps more ingenious than the
sundial, the time is simply displayed without any indication of process or how. This creates a
certain abstraction of time, leading to a disconnect between the timekeeper and the original
source of time measurement–the sun (and by extension, the natural world).
To better understand the exchange that took place when measurement of natural phenomena
was set aside in favor of mechanical contraptions, a wider scope of antique devices can be
examined. Take for example the hourglass, nocturnal, astrolabe (and yes, sundial). All these
devices accomplish different tasks which we effortlessly match today, but they do so in unique
ways which harness the natural sphere.
The hourglass, perhaps the simplest of the list, looks to gravity as its patron force, for without it
the device would cease to function. Once again, a partnership can be observed between the
craftsman or user, the device, and nature itself. Without the glass to guide and collect the sand,
the timekeeping potential of gravity would be unseen, and without the force itself, the glass and
sand would sit dormant (as many do today–few actually keep hourglasses for their timekeeping
properties, moreso as decorations, though the force of gravity still offers the potential). Devices
like this do not simply give their outputs with no explanation. Their inner workings are directly
tied to the natural forces they harness, easily understood, and often on full display.
Because these old contraptions channel nature, they bridge the gap between it and us, allowing
a direct communication and partnership between device, operator, and these global constants.
Without any one of these pillars, the potential of their combined focus is lost. Thus is the magic
of sundials and similar instruments of antiquity; using one–even years after their golden
age–brings back in full force the wonder of nature, harnessed and focused, displayed for anyone
willing to step into the light.