Each afternoon throughout the late winter, I inevitably pause on my travels back and forth between house and garage to consult the sundial in the upper garden. While the dial forms the focal point of this particular space all year long, now though it takes on a special significance. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about looking out over the cold barren landscape watching the rimey dial patiently count down the end of winter. Although the light is weak and far from warm, as long as the sun shines even faintly, the shadow still moves across the markings of the dial, as if to reassure me that all is well: the passage of the seasons continues, spring shall indeed return.
Of course the sundial didn’t start out merely as garden decoration. Dating at least as far back as ancient Egypt and Greece, sundials were the only form of accurate timekeeping available for thousands of years, and the best of ancient engineering and science went into producing extremely accurate dials. In fact, large sundials were often set up in public places to mark the official hours of the business day or the passage of the year. (This last, technically called a solar meridian, charts not the hours as a sundial does, but the position of the sun each day at noon, marking the seasons as the shadow cast by the pointer lengthens and shortens along a proscribed line. One of the most spectacular of all solar meridians was erected in Rome by Emperor Augustus in 10 BC. To form the huge structure, called the Horologium, he transported a 21 meter, 230 ton ancient obelisk from Egypt to use as the pointer and embedding guilt numbers in the marble paving. Interestingly, while the markings of the dial were almost entirely destroyed (a few fragments were found during excavations in the 1980s), the huge obelisk proved far more durable. It was discovered toppled over and buried in the late 1700’s, and was laboriously re-erected in the Piazza di Montecitorio where it remains to this day, once again counting out the months on a recreated dial. The gilt ball that once capped the pinnacle is now in the Vatican Museum.)
On the domestic level, small sun dials became common in the Roman Empire, and their need for unobstructed sun and easy viewing logically relegated them to outdoor garden spaces. When the first sundial actually appeared in the home garden is not known for sure, but Cicero writes to his friend Tiro as early as 42 BC that he wanted to set up a dial in the grounds of his Tuscan villa. Sundials continued to be created right through the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment. Along the way, additional features were added to some dials. While most could tell time only by the sun, others used moonlight as well, and could accurately predict the rising and setting of various stars and planets.
Most people would be surprised to learn that the sundial’s demise as the timekeeper of choice was amazingly recent. While mechanical clocks and watches have been around for hundreds of years, until the middle of the 1800’s they were quite inaccurate, and had to be reset by consulting a sundial. Interestingly, it was the advent of the railroads that did in the dials. Sundials can keep only local time. Because of the movement of the sun around the earth, your noon arrives slightly sooner than your western neighbors, and slightly later than your eastern ones. When people traveled slowly, it wasn’t a problem that each town had its own local time, but with the advent of the rapid train travel, something needed to be done. In order to facilitate arrival and departure schedules, in 1884 a conference was held to divide the US into four time zones, each 15 degrees of latitude. All localities within that Zone would follow the same time. The 3000 year reign of the sundial was suddenly over, replaced by, of all things, the whistle of a train.
All this in no way affected the popularity of the sundial in the garden however, and in some ways, the loss of the dial’s utilitarian value only enhanced its aesthetic appeal. In fact, the zenith of sundial popularity as a garden ornament was reached just before the First World War, when the rapid industrialization of society bred nostalgia for all things old and simple. Many long-forgotten dials were resurrected during this period, thousands of new dials created, and entire books dedicated to sundials were published.
These days the pleasure of suntime is only a keystroke or two away, You can find sundials from numerous vendors in almost any style and shape imaginable, and for almost any budget. If you want your sundial to keep accurate time though, you need to keep a few things in mind. Sundials must be positioned very carefully. The gnomon, the part whose shadow measures the sun, must point directly north. That’s pretty easily accomplished with a compass, but there’s a bit more. Sundials are actually place-specific, in that the angle of the gnomon must be parallel to the north pole, which varies by latitude. Thus, if you move a sundial north or south of the locale for which it was constructed, it won’t tell time correctly. Some manufacturers will make custom dials specifically created to your locality, and if you are lucky enough to get one of these (or make your own, see below) – or if a store-bought one works for you, all you need to do is to set the dial completely level. For most generic types though, you’ll have to tilt the dial slightly off the level to make up for the difference in latitude, which takes only a few minutes with the help of a guidebook. Of course, if you don’t care about telling time, you don’t have to worry about precise positioning, though given the marvelous history and lore behind the sundial, it would seem a shame not to share in this age-old ritual of sun time.
Sundials do make wonderful garden focal points, all the more so because they often bear poignant mottoes. The themes vary from morbid to cheery, though almost all have to do with the passage of time in some way. Latin has traditionally been the preferred language for dials in the West, though many others are found as well. Here are some of my favorites, all taken from dials before 1900.
NON NUMERO NISI SERANAS (or AUREAS) and variations: Let others tell of storms and showers, I count only sunny hours
TEMPUS FUGIT and variations: Time flies
BEHOLD AND BE GONE ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS
CARPE DIEM Seize the day
DEPRESSA RESURGO I set to rise
DISCE TUOS NUMERARE DIES Learn to number thy days
EHEU FUGACES LABUNTUR ANNI Alas the fleeting years slip by
TRIFLE NOT YOUR TIME IS SHORT
L’HEURE PASSE, L’AMITIE RESTE Time passes, friendship remains
FESTINAT SUPREMA The last hour approaches
FUMUS ET UMBRA SUMUS We are naught but smoke and shadow
HOC TUUM EST The present is all you may claim as yours
HODIE MIHI, CRAS TIBI Today is mine, tomorrow may be yours
THE IDLE WHO WOULD BE COUNTED WISE
THINK ALL DELIGHT IN PASTIME LIES
NOR HEED THEY WHAT THE WISE CONDEMN:
AS THEY PASS TIME, TIME PASSES THEM
I NOTE THE TIME THAT YOU WASTE
NOW IS YESTERDAY’S TOMORROW
MORA TRAHIT PERICULUM Delay is dangerous
MORS OMNIA VINCIT Death conquers all
NIL DAT QUOD NON HABET Nothing comes of nothing
A CLOCK THE TIME MAY WRONGLY TELL, I NEVER IF THE SUN SHINES WELL
NEQUE LUX SINE UMBRA There is no light without shade
NIHIL VELOCIUS ANNIS Nothing is swifter than time
C’EST L’HEURE DE BOIRE (or VIVRE) It’s time to drink (or live)
WITH MY SHADOW MOVES THE WORLD
SOL SPLENDIT OMNIBUS The sun shines for all
DU HABST DEN ETWAS GUT GETHAN Of the hours let there be none, in which by you no good is done
WE BOTH HASTEN TOWARDS SUNSET
SILENS LOQUOR Though silent, I speak
LEAD KINDLY LIGHT
Note: If you are curious to build your own dial, everything you ever need to know is contained here: Albert E Waugh Sundials: Their Theory and Construction 1973