Keeping time

Williams Fund sparks solar clock project

Photo by Rick RappaportPhoto by Rick Rappaport

Student Margaret Rayfield, left, and Virginia Cartwright, an associate professor of architecture, test a model obelisk in the Baker Lighting Lab in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts.


Imagine an obelisk, similar in shape to the Washington Monument, rising thirty feet above the University of Oregon campus.

That’s what UO student Margaret Rayfield envisions when she hits the Knight Library for research to bring to life one of history’s most important clocks.

She says the UO obelisk will serve as a “gnomon,” the technical name for the part of a sundial that casts a shadow across a surface marked to show the hours, days, months, and seasons.

The senior from Seattle hasn’t missed a meeting of the group striving to recreate the world’s only working replica of the Solarium-Horologium, the colossal ancient Roman sundial built two thousand years ago by Augustus Caesar.

“The name literally means ‘solar device for measuring time,’ ” said Rayfield, who has a rare undergraduate research position with Professor John Nicols, a specialist in ancient history and the history of science. “This is the clock that marked the Western world’s revolutionary shift from a lunar to a solar-based system of timekeeping.”

The project grew out of an interdisci-plinary History of Science course that Nicols and Physics Professor Greg Bothun developed with a Williams Fund award. (See story at right for other innovations made possible by the Williams Fund).

“We would like to create a physical representation of the connections between fields of study,” Nicols said. “This would be the only public art on campus reflecting the collaborative efforts of architects, scientists, and scholars from a variety of fields.”

About a dozen professors and more than twenty students have volunteered their time during the last year to perfect a prototype and obtain initial approvals
for the replica.

The test site, keyed to a Victorian lamp post in front of McKenzie Hall (formerly the law school) is accurate to within sixty seconds at noon.

“Long before mechanical clocks were invented, people relied on sundials,” Nicols said. “Actually, sundials
remained the most popular way of keeping time until watches became commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century, making it possible for people to tell time wherever they were and whatever the weather.”

Rome’s original sixty-foot obelisk now stands in front of the Italian Parliament. It was already six centuries old when Augustus had it moved from Egypt to Rome to serve as the gnomon for his sundial.

“It was toppled in late antiquity, rediscovered in the Renaissance, and set up again without the sundial’s face,” Nicols said. “About twenty years ago, a team of German archaeologists located the sundial’s face, which measures roughly 300 by 200 feet across, eighteen feet below the current street level of Rome.”

Construction cost of the UO replica is estimated at $100,000. The next steps are to complete the plan and obtain funding through private gifts.

For Rayfeld, the obelisk will stand for the value and meaning of a university education. “The combination of art and science involved in this project reflects the best of what a university education provides,” she said. “The opportunity to have a hand in planning has been the capstone to my university experience.”

—Melody Ward Leslie