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Sun Dials: What’s The Point?

January 20, 2022

Sun dials are seeing a rise in popularity; that old saying is true. What comes around, goes around and everything will come back into style eventually. Right now, most people use them for garden decoration, but they used to have a far more vital purpose. It used to be that they were used to tell the time of day.


In fact, sun dials are the earliest type of time keeping device out there! They existed for centuries before people even began to dream about the idea of mechanical clocks. As the sun always tracks the same path through the sky, the sun dial is always able to cast a moving shadow. They do this by using the gnomon, the center piece, to cast a shadow. As the sun moves across the sky, the position of the shadow changes. This indicates the passage of time and would allow those around the sun dial to use it as a way to track the changing hour. As the sun moved, the shadow would also move.


The earliest known sun dial is an Egyptian shadow clock, made from green schist. Green schist is a type of rock that was often used in building during ancient Egyptian times, and can easily withstand weather damage. Clocks of this kind are actually still in use in modern Egypt, in various parts of the country, so the sun dial’s practical usage has not truly been diminished to simply a garden trinket.


Not all sun dials are small scale, though. The ancient Greeks were known for their geometrical prowess, and used it to develop incredibly complex sun dials. One such sun dial is the Tower of the Winds, which can be located in Athens. The Tower of the Winds is octagonal in shape, and dates back to one hundred BCE. It consists of eight planar sundials, which face in various cardinal points of the axis. The Romans also used sun dials to employ seasonal hours.


Some sun dials were even portable. Vitruvius was a Roman architect and engineer who lived during the 1st century BCE. Through his works, we are aware of many types of sun dials that might have otherwise been forgotten to the sands of time – including those that were portable.


Sun dials were so important that right up until the 19th century, they were still used as a way to reset mechanical clocks, ensuring that the mechanical clock was put to the right time. After all, a machine can make a mistake, but the sun always casts shadows at the same time.


Now days, sun dials are not kept around for their practical use so much as they are for their appearance. They have become a common occurrence in gardens, and have even been known to be popular DIY crafts available on sites like Etsy. It seems that the sun dial is an invention that not only keeps track of time, but which has come back around and managed to stay relevant.


Hannah CI-8

Hannah Cheshire

Part of the ClockedIn family since: 2018

Favourite quote: “Not all storms come to disrupt your life. Some come to clear your path.”