THE sundial is one of the human race’s earliest achievements in marking the passage of time. But sundials provided people with much more than this practical goal – their replication of the heavens provided aesthetic and religious satisfaction. This is often hard to comprehend nowadays, when sundials have often become little more than garden ornaments and are not usually very accurate (although it is relatively easy to construct an accurate sundial).
The Egyptians used sundials as early as 1500 BC. A sundial, the dial of Ahaz, is mentioned in the Old Testament (Isaiah 38: 8) and would have existed around approximately 730 B.C.The ancient Babylonians, the Chaldeans, were renowned as astronomers. Their treatises on sundials were the definitive expertise on sundials for over a millenium, until the Christian era.
The indicator on the sundial is called a gnomon, a Greek word meaning pointer.
The Greeks and Romans used sundials extensively. In fact, the indicator on the sundial that casts the shadow is still called by the Greek word “gnomon” which means pointer. The use of towers and obelisks as gnomons to cast shadows indicating the hours, was very evident in ancient Greece and Rome. Sundials were found in houses, tombs, temples, baths and other public places. Not everyone was happy about this as the following quote shows:
The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours – confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sundial
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small pieces! When I was a boy.
My belly was my sundial – one more sure,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when ’twas proper time
To go to dinner, when I had ought to eat;
But nowadays, why even when I have,
I can’t fall to unless the sun gives me leave.
The town’s so full of these confounded dials,
The greatest part of its inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, creep along the streets.
attributed to Plautus
Oldest known quote on sundials
Later on, the Arabs were renowned for more complicated sundials of greater accuracy and scope of design. Elsewhere on the globe, the Chinese were great users of sundials and the Aztecs and Inca civilizations in the Americas were also familiar with sundials.
The Nocturnal dial was first used in the 15th century by navigators
who needed to tell time by the position of the stars.
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