A Brief History of the Sundial

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Sundials are some of the oldest devices mankind has used to tell the time. There are many accounts of sundials being in used throughout the oldest civilizations known to man. But who really invented the sundial, and why was it invented in the first place?

Who Invented The Sundial?

No one is really sure who invented the sundial, as many ancient civilizations developed sundials independently from one another. There have been accounts of sundials being used in Ancient Babylon and Ancient Egypt. Even the Greeks and the Romans have all used and developed sundials of their own.

The oldest known sundial (also known as sun clock or shadow clock) was found in Egypt and it’s believed to have been used around 3,500 years ago during the reign of Thutmose III. The length of the shadow (instead of the placement of the shadow) casted by the sunlight hitting the gnomon indicated the time.

History of Sundials

The sun has always been used to tell the time. Even today, you can look up at the sky and tell the approximate time based on the sun’s position.

Sundials used both light and shadow, and sundials came in all different shapes and sizes. Some sundials were placed on the ground, while others were placed on walls and towers. And while most sundials used shadows, some used mirror images and light beams shining through holes.

Though the oldest sundial to date has been found, there is no saying that it’s the oldest sundial we’ll ever see. There is no telling when an older sundial may be discovered, and there are no studies to prove that shadow clocks haven’t been used at an earlier date. Here are some of accounts of different people and civilizations using sundials.

  • In 800 BC China, sundials were used before their transition to the better favored water clocks, though sundials and compasses were still used to correct the water clocks.
  • In roughly 700 BC, the Bible tells the story of the prophet, Isaiah, who prayed and called on to God to move the shadow casted on a sundial backwards.
  • In Greece, sundials were believed to have been introduced by Anaximander of Miletus in 560 BC. The Greeks used their knowledge of geometry to improve on the sundials, and Theodosius of Bithynia was even said to have developed a sundial that can be used no matter where on Earth you’re located.
  • The earliest accounts of the Romans using sundials were in 293 BC. In a play written by the comic Plautus, he complained that the sundials in his city has effectively chopped his day into small pieces, when he has always used his belly to tell him when it’s time to eat and the sunset to tell him when it’s time to rest.
  • In Europe beginning in the 13th century, striking clocks were used to tell the time, and the bells usually sounded every hour or every quarter hour. When the tower clocks became popular, sundials were placed on walls and clock towers to help people tell time even if it wasn’t exactly on the hour.
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