The Evolution of the Sundial

Nancy B. Alston

Before there were clocks, there was the Sun. Undeveloped cultures (both ancient and current) often allowed their lives to be regulated by the apparent movement of the sun. Life consisted of existing another day. The acts of survival included farming (though more like “gardening”), hunting, fishing, and maintaining shelter. Most of these actions required sunlight. Thus, when the sun rose, the people rose from sleep; when the sun set, the people soon set themselves down for sleep once again.

Sundials were used to mark off sections of the day, but many were designed to work in specific latitudes. Some were sophisticated enough to have a removable stylus enabling the dial to be portable and usable at other latitudes. One method of measuring time used candles. Graduations on candlesticks would slowly melt away as the burning flame continued its descent.

Of course, none of these methods measured time very accurately. One could only gather approximations of the passage time. Mechanical clocks began to be developed in the 1300s. These were “weighted” clocks, dependent upon gravity to pull weights connected to timing gears. However, accuracy was still a challenge because of the friction within the gear mechanisms. These clocks were difficult to regulate for accuracy.

Spring-powered clocks were invented in the early 1500s. This enabled smaller clocks to be built, even portable clocks, because the hanging weights were no longer necessary; however, regulation was still a problem because as the springs unwound their clock-movement force would dissipate. While clocks could now sit on a table, or the mantel of a fireplace, they still had only an hour hand.

It wasn’t until the pendulum clock appeared in the 1600s that clocks could accurately measure time to within one minute per 24-hours. In the 1700s, the errors were reduced to one second per 24-hours, and in the late 1800s to one-one hundredth of a second per 24-hours.

Mechanical clocks began taking many forms: Long-Case Clocks (also known as Grandfather Clocks), Mantel Clocks, Table Clocks, Wall Clocks, Bracket Clocks, et al. Many of these now fit under the category of Antique Clocks, or Collectible Clocks. In future postings we will center on a particular style of clock.

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