How Man Began to Model After Nature and Developed the Sundial
WE NOW have reached a point far ahead of our story and must take a backward
step before we get to the development of the sundial. We have been seeing man as a mere observer of nature; but man doesn't
stop with nature as he finds it--his man-brain drives him forward; he must
make improvements of his own. Animals may live and die and leave no trace
save their bones, which for the most part soon disappear, but man always
leaves traces behind him. He has always interfered with nature, or rather
has modeled after nature, seeing in her work the revelations of principles
and laws that he might utilize in varying ways for his own benefit and
progress. Our material civilization is built up from the accumulated results
of all this study and control of nature by hundreds of millions of busy
brains and hands, through tens of thousands of years.
Here we are, then, living, in a sense on the top of the ages of human
history, like the dwellers on a coral island. Hundreds of generations have
toiled to raise the vast structure for us, like the little coral "polyps"
which build their own lives into the mass, yet we take it all as a matter of
course and rarely give a thought to the marvelous ways by which it has come
about. You may have just glanced at your watch. To you, perhaps, a watch has
always seemed merely a small mechanism which was bought in a store. That is
true, and yet--remember this--the first manufacturer who had a hand in
producing that watch for you, may have been a caveman.
In order to appreciate this development, let us return, therefore, for
another rapid view of prehistoric times; life in its crudest form--one day
much like another--a scanty population, huddled in little groups in places
naturally sheltered--the simplest physical needs to be provided for--little
thought of the past or care for the future--time-reckoning reduced to the
single thought of appointment--no reason for measuring intervals--in these
and other respects antiquity presented the greatest possible contrast to our
complicated modern life.
The long-armed man of our first chapter noticed that as the sun moved, the
shadows of the cliff also moved, as did all other shadows. As he formed
habits of regularity, it was natural for him to perform a certain daily act
when, perhaps, the shadow of a certain tree touched upon a certain stone.
This would be a natural sun-dial.
But a thinner, sharper shadow would be easier to observe; suppose,
therefore, that some successor to the long-armed man set up a pole in some
open space and laid a stone to mark the spot where the shadow fell when the
sun was highest in the heavens. That would be an artificial sundial--a
device deliberately planned to accomplish a certain purpose. The man who
first took such a step was probably the first manufacturer who had a hand in
supplying you with your watch. The shaggy mammoth, the terrible saber-tooth
tiger and the eohippus, the small ancestor of our modern horse, must have
been familiar sights when time-recording at the hands of some rude,
unconscious inventor thus began the long story of its development.
One stone reached by the moving shadow would mark only one point of time
each day. Why not place two stones, three stones, or even more and get more
markings? Such a procedure would be more useful because it would indicate
the time of other happenings in the course of the day. The sun would pass
across the skies and the shadow must travel around the pole. What more
natural than to place the stones in a circle and get a series of these
Of course, as the ages passed, life became more complex--not complex as we
would consider it to-day, but, as compared with its rude beginnings. New
habits were formed, new needs developed, new activities were undertaken at
Here, then, was the sprouting of modern civilization--the beginning of that
specializing of each man in his own particular direction that has carried
the world to its present high state of expertness in so many fields. Slowly
steadily, and inevitably this principle of specialization has been
developed. With the increase of laws, for example, certain men came to give
them special study and then to sell their knowledge and skill to other men
who had no opportunity for such study. In course of time, the aggregation of
laws became so great that these lawyers were forced to specialize among
themselves; to-day, therefore, we find a number of classes of law
specialists. The same thing is true of doctors who have limited their
practise until we find those who treat the eye only, or the lungs, the
stomach, or the teeth. Even the treatment of the teeth has been subdivided,
some dentists limiting themselves to extraction and some of them even to the
treatment of a single disease of the gums.
Engineering, too, has branched like a tree and the branches have branched
again and yet again. Electrical engineering has come to be divided into so
many departments that telephone companies employ specialists in many
branches of the engineering profession.
We find the same conditions in any field of thought or activity--all
commercial and industrial life is divided and subdivided; labor is
specialized; writing is specialized; teaching is specialized; even warfare
has become a contest between many kinds of trained specialists, each
employing the tools of his trade; and every man's outlook upon life is
directed chiefly toward the particular corner of the particular field that
he has fitted himself to occupy.
The first step toward this complex condition of the modern world was taken
when each man stopped getting his own food, making his own weapons, and
providing for all his individual wants without dependence upon others. When
he learned to exchange that which he could best produce for that which some
other man had learned to make better than he, the human race unconsciously
turned away from the status of the birds and the beasts and began the long,
slow upward climb that history records.
It was, then, through trade, barter and exchange that man began to acquire
the manners of civilized life. Trade itself became a specialized activity,
and dealers who did nothing but buy and sell, but themselves produced no
material goods, found that a special calling was rightfully theirs. The
modern merchant is the heir of one of the first "specialists" in human
activity, and the misunderstood work of the so-called "middleman" is one of
the bases of modern civilization--a necessary and honorable calling.
Civilization is a thing of the spirit, but it has the support of material
things and it has been truly said that the degree of a people's civilization
can be measured by the multiplicity of its needs. The savage is content with
food, shelter and a covering for his body, but every step in civilization's
progress has a more and more complex material accompaniment, and these
interwoven relationships of modern life in which the question of time is a
most important factor can only be sustained through the use of accurate
time-measure. In other words, modern civilization leans upon the watch.
But here again we have run somewhat ahead of our story which, as a matter of
fact, had only reached the point of primitive sun-dials. But this
anticipation will be excused because of the importance of emphasizing that
the growing interdependence of human relations had made it necessary to take
into account the convenience of a greater and greater number of people, and
this involved closer and closer time-recording in smaller divisions of time
by more exact methods.
The sun-dial underwent so many changes that a volume would be needed to
describe them all. For example, it was found that the shadow of an upright
stick or stone varied from day to day, because, as we have already noticed,
the sun rises farther north in summer in the northern hemisphere than it
does in winter. So the mark for a certain hour would change as the season
changed, and the dial would not indicate time accurately.
Berosus, a Chaldean historian and priest of Bel, or Baal, a god of the old
Babylonian, lived about the year 250 B. C., and hit upon a very ingenious
way of solving this difficulty. He made the dial hollow like the inside of a
bowl. Into this the shadow was cast by a little round ball or bead at the
end of a pointer that stood horizontally out over the bowl.
Now the sky itself is like a great bowl or inverted hemisphere, and,
howsoever the sun moved upon it, the shadow would move in the same way upon
the inside of the bowl or hemisphere. And by drawing lines in the bowl,
similar to the lines of longitude upon the map, the hours could be correctly
measured. The "Hemicycle of Berosus," as it was called, remained in use for
centuries and was the favorite form of sun-dial all through the classic
period of Greece and Rome. Cicero had one at his villa near Tusculum, and
one was found, in 1762, at Pompeii.
But the hemicycle was not easy to make unless it were fairly small, and, if
small, it was not very easy to read. You can see that a shadow which
traveled only a few inches in a whole day would move so slowly that one
could hardly see it go. And the shadow of a round ball is not a clear
sharp-pointed thing like the hand of a watch, whose exact position can be
seen however small it may be. Besides, the ancients were not very particular
about exact timekeeping. They had no trains to catch, and in their leisurely
lives convenience counted for more than doing things "on the minute." So
they still continued using the upright pointer which the Greeks called the
gnomon, meaning "the one who knows."
"Cleopatra's Needle," and other Egyptian obelisks may also have been used as
huge gnomons to cast their shadows upon mammoth dials, for they were
dedicated to the sun. With an object of such great size the shadow would
move rapidly enough to be followed easily by the eye. But of course its
motion would be irregular because of the flat surface of the dial. The word
"dial," by the way, comes from the Latin dies meaning "day," because it
determined the divisions of the day.
Then there was applied the idea of making the shadow move over a hollow
space, such as a walled courtyard, going down one side, across, and up the
other side as the sun went up, across and down the sky. Sometimes light was
used instead of shadow, the place being partially roofed over and a single
beam of light being admitted through a small hole at the southern end. Men
kept track of the motion of this beam as it touched one point after another
during the day.
Do you remember the miracle of the dial of Ahaz, mentioned in the Bible?
Hezekiah the king was sick and despondent, and would not believe that he
could ever recover from his illness or prevail against his enemies. So the
prophet, Isaiah, in an effort to comfort the royal sufferer, made the shadow
return backward ten degrees upon the dial of Ahaz, as a sign from heaven
that his prophecy of the king's future recovery was true. You will find the
story in Isaiah, Chapter thirty-eight.
This dial of Ahaz was probably a curved flight of steps rising like the side
of a huge bowl at one end of the palace courtyard, with either a shadow cast
by a pointer overhead or a beam of light admitted through an opening. It can
be seen that this and similar great dials were applications of the hemicycle
idea on a large scale.
According to our chronology, the dial of Ahaz must have been built during
the eighth century, B. C. Although the sun-dial period was, of course, many
hundreds of years older than this, yet the story of this Hebrew king and
prophet is the first authentic reference to a sun-dial which has been
However, the final improvement of the dial was made when it was discovered
that by slanting the pointer, or gnomon, exactly toward the north pole of
the sky--the point where the north star appears at night--the sun's shadow
could be cast upon a flat surface with accurate results in indicating time.
This may sound simple, but if you will look at a sun-dial such as may still
be found in gardens, you will see that the lines of the hours and minutes
are laid out on certain carefully calculated angles; you will realize that
people had to acquire considerable knowledge before they were capable of
making such calculations. The whole subject of dial-making is so complicated
that, in 1612, there was published a big book of eight hundred pages on the
The angles of the lines of the sun-dial must be different for different
latitudes. It took that strong-arm race of ancient times, the Romans, a
hundred years to learn this fact. The Romans, at this time, were developing
their civilization from the shoulders downward, while the Greeks and some of
the Greek colonies developed theirs from the shoulders upward. Rome was a
burly power, with powerful military muscles. Whatever it wanted it went out
and took at the point of the sword, as some nations have endeavored to do in
latter days. Thus, the city of Rome became a vast storehouse of
miscellaneous loot--the fruit of other men's brains and hands.
Some conqueror of that day took back with him a sundial from the Greek
colony of Sicily. This was set up in Rome, where nobody realized that even
the power of Rome's armies was not able to transplant the angle of the sun
as it shone upon Sicily far to the southward. It was nearly one hundred
years before these self-satisfied robbers found that they had been getting
the wrong time-record from the stolen instrument. Thus, the original owners
had a form of belated revenge, could they but have known it.
One of the largest of all the sun-dials was the one set up by the Roman
Emperor Augustus when he returned from his Egyptian wars bringing with him
an obelisk not unlike the one which now stands near the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in Central Park, New York City. If you can imagine this Egyptian
obelisk, with its strange hieroglyphic characters upon its four sides,
surrounded by a great dial with the figures of the hours marked upon its
surface, you will get an idea of the size of this huge time-piece. However,
it was probably more picturesque than valuable as a time-keeper.
There is an important difference between clocks and sun-dials, aside from
the self-evident one of the difference in their construction. Clock-time is
based on what is called "mean time." If we study the almanac table of times
of sunrises and sunsets, and count the number of hours from sunrise of one
day to sunrise of the next, we find it is rarely exactly twenty-four hours,
but usually a few minutes more or less, while the average for the whole year
is twenty-four hours. The clock is constructed to keep uniform time based on
this average length of day.
The sun-dial time marks "apparent time," the actual varying length of each
day. The sun-dial time, therefore, is nearly always some minutes ahead or
behind that of a clock, the greatest discrepancy being about sixteen minutes
for a few days in November. There are, however, four days in the year when
the clock and the sun-dial agree perfectly in the time they indicate. These
days are April 15th, June 15th, September 1st, and December 24th.
When in the eighteenth century clocks and watches began to come into
wide-spread use sun-dials fell into neglect, except as an appropriate bit of
ornament in gardens. At Castletown, in the Isle of Man, is a remarkable
sun-dial with thirteen faces, dating from 1720.
It was usual to place on sun-dials appropriate mottoes expressing a
sentiment exciting inspiration or giving a warning to better living. A dial
that used to be at Paul's Cross, London, bore an inscription in Latin, which
translated means, "I count none but the sunny hours." In an old
sweet-scented garden in Sussex was a sun-dial with a plate bearing four
mottoes, each for its own season: "After darkness, light;" "Alas, how
swift;" "I wait whilst I move;" "So passes life." Sometimes short familiar
proverbs were used like: "All things do wax and wane;" "The longest day must
end;" "Make hay while the sun shines."
It is told of Lord Bacon, that, without intending to do so, he furnished the
motto borne by a dial that stood in the old Temple Gardens in London. A
young student was sent to him for a suggestion for the motto of the dial,
then being built. His lordship was busy at work in his rooms when the
messenger humbly and respectfully made his request. There was no answer. A
second request met with equally oppressive silence and seeming ignorance of
even the existence of the speaker. At last, when the petitioner ventured a
third attack on the attention of the venerable chancellor, Bacon looked up
and said sharply: "Sirrah, be gone about your business." "A thousand thanks,
my lord," was the unexpected reply, "The very thing for the dial! Nothing
could be better."
We see that the principle of the sun-dial has been recognized and utilized
for many centuries; indeed, we still find sun-dials placed in gardens and
parks although we rarely take the trouble to look to them for the time. Like
the dinosaur and the saber-toothed tiger, they have had their day. They have
been forced to give way to devices that overcame some of their objections;
therefore we must not linger too long upon what is, after all, a closed
chapter in the history of time-recording.