A Short History of the Sundial

A Short History of the Sundial

The earliest household clocks known to man are the ‘shadow clocks’ of ancient Babylonian astronomy, which date back to 1500 BCE. The earliest surviving sundial dates back to the same era; an Egyptian instrument consisting of a flat stone with an L-shaped bar whose vertical limb casts a shadow across the markings on its horizontal limb. Predecessors of the sundial include poles and upright stones that were used as gnomons, as well as pyramids and obelisks used in ancient Egypt. 

Like so many things, however, it was the ancient Greeks who truly developed the principles and forms of the sundial. Given they were the founders of geometry, it comes as no surprise they took to sundial innovation like ducks to scientific water. The word gnomon even comes from an ancient Greek word, meaning ‘indicator’.

The largest sundial in the world was constructed in Jaipur, India, in c.1724. It covers almost one acre of land and has a gnomon that reaches over 100ft or 30m high. But sundials are not mere relics from the distant past. In fact, the heliochronometer, an incredibly accurate sundial-esque instrument which uses a fine wire to cast its shadow, was still being used c.1900 to set the watches of French railwaymen.

The oldest sundial in England is a tide dial (a sundial marked with the canonical hours instead of or in addition to the daylight hours) carved into the Anglo-Saxon Bewcastle Cross in Cumbria. It dates back to the 7th or 8th century, and is inscribed with reliefs and runes, as well as its dial.

The Seven Dials sundial was built some thousand or so years after the Bewcastle Cross, by England’s leading stonemason, Edward Pierce. It was commissioned by Thomas Neale, and was designed to be the centrepiece of his newly developed quarter, in the shadow of London’s Covent Garden.

Alas, in 1773 the sundial, or ‘La Pyramide’, as the area’s French refugees called it, was torn down. Not by a mob in search of gold, as the story goes, but by local authorities who disapproved of its use as a meeting point for ‘black-guards and chimney sweepers’. 

Still, the sundial lives on in Cubitts Covent Garden, where its gnomon serves as the inspiration for the brackets that support the glass shelving, and for the silhouette of the made-to-measure Monmouth frame.