Telling Time in Early Europe

What time is it, you say? If you were living before the 18th century, you would not look at your wrist watch. No, you'd slip a portable sundial out of your pocket. The more complex sundials could also be converted to moon dials that indicated the time according to the amount of moonlight expected on a clear, starry night.

Although town squares began constructing clocks beginning somewhere in the 14th century, sundials remained in the picture well into the 18th century. Mechanical clocks were exorbitantly expensive and could be found only in the most noble of homes. And they were notoriously unreliable--telling time only within an hour, give or take. They also needed to be reset frequently. Of course, with the help of a sundial.

A well crafted sundial was the mark of good birth and high culture. One of the most famous sundial makers of the late seventeenth century was the Englishman Michael Butterfield, who set up shop along the riverbanks of Paris. His top-of-line sundials were made of silver, not brass, and were engraved with beautifully elaborate designs.

Sundial preferences were also gendered. Men went for larger sundials of about 2 1/2 inches nested in a silver box, that itself was nested in a brass exterior box. Women reached instead for daintier, 1 inch models in gold cases that could be slipped more easily in a purse.

Now I'm not a specialist of time telling in the early-modern period. Hardly! Much of what you have here is a distillation of Sara Schechner's outstanding article: "The Material Culture of Astronomy in Daily Life: Sundials, Science, and Social Change" (Journal for the History of Astronomy, 2001, 189-222). Well worth the read!

And for anyone near Chicago and interested in time keeping, a visit to the Adler Planetarium is well worth the trip. Their historical collections are remarkable. Any readers out there with a big checkbook? Take a peek at the sundial collections here. Feel free to ship one to me!

Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum. For more information on the sundial above, click here.

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