An ancient way to watch time Sundials: These old, ornamental, outdoor devices are popular again.

In the garden

November 01, 1998|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Sundials are the modern gardener's silent partner in a conspiracy to escape the demands of the world, to wander back to a day when time was measured by the length of a shadow rather than by the numerals on a digital clock.

Fresh interest in sundials has brought them back into their place in the sun.

People have been tracking the passage of time for as long as there have been appointments to keep. For centuries before clocks chimed in city squares, sundials were put on pedestals in public places, mounted on the walls of buildings and set among the roses, according to Sara Schechner Genuth, a museum consultant specializing in the history of science and an authority on the history of sundials.

Dials were known in Babylon, in ancient Greece and in Rome. They became popular in England in the 15th century and were used in North America in Colonial times. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned sundials. For Benjamin Franklin, time was indeed money, and he put a sundial in his design for one of the earliest American dollars.

A basic sundial consists of a horizontal plate, marked off into hours, and a gnomon, the raised part of the dial that casts a shadow on the plate.

Clocks merely keep time, Genuth says; sundials find it. "Every time you look at it, a sundial is using the sun, finding the time at that instant," she says.

Garden dials today are mainly decorative, but they help you understand the schedule your flowers are keeping. Horizontal sundials, which can be mounted on a pedestal, a stump or a

fence post, are available at garden shops and through mail-order houses. Sundials may also be in the form of armillary spheres - hTC an arrangement of rings with an arrow shot through, pointing to ** the North Star. The arrow casts a shadow on one of the rings to tell the time.

Things are looking sunny for sundials. The North American Sundial Society was established four years ago. Sundials figure in plans for modern gardens. David Todd, time-keeping specialist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, recently designed one for a Victorian-style garden at the Smithsonian. Genuth designed two for an exhibition on solar power the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

Genuth's and Todd's dials tell time accurately; garden dials may not. The fanciest sundials are designed for a specific site, at a known latitude and longitude. Garden-shop dials are often made with the gnomon at a standard 45-degree angle from the plate, which works only if you happen to live along the 45th parallel (about the latitude of Bangor, Maine; St. Paul, Minn.; and Salem, Ore.). Even the best dials will be thrown off by the differences between solar time, local standard time and daylight-saving time. If you want your sundial to keep accurate time, adjustments must be made.

The peaceful image of a sundial is crucial to a passage in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," in which Alice and Humpty Dumpty decipher "Jabberwocky," the greatest of all nonsense poems. The opening lines are: "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe."

Alice observes, "And 'the wabe' is the grass plot round a sundial, I suppose?" Humpty Dumpty replies: "Of course it is. It's called 'wabe,' you know, because it goes a long way before it and a long way behind it ..." and Alice finishes his sentence: "and a long way beyond it on each side."

Nonsense aside, dials are excellent garden ornaments. They give the garden a focal point: They can be placed where paths meet, at the end of a walk or at the center of a flower bed. If the roses grow around it, or a fine old tree shades it for part of the day, the garden is, in its own way, marking the passing of time.


North American Sundial Society, 8 Sachem Drive, Glastonbury, Conn. 06033, 860-633-8655.

For more information on sundials and instructions on how to make them, see "Sundials, Their Theory and Construction" by Albert Waugh (Dover, $8).

Many garden shops sell sundials. Two mail-order sources are: Kinsman Co., River Road P.O. Box 357, Point Pleasant, Pa. 18950, 800-733-4146; the catalog is free. Wind & Weather, P.O. Box 2320, Mendocino, Calif. 95460, 800-922-9463; the catalog is free.

Pub date 11/198

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