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Telling Time

By Bill Nye | Published: August 10, 2011 – 4:35 pm

My father wore a beautiful gold wristwatch. It was how a young traveling salesman made sure he was on time for his appointments. To energize the movement, he had to wind it everyday. This was before we could all carry mobile phones accurate to milliseconds. Timekeeping was a bit of a fascination for my dad. He spent 44 months as a prisoner-of-war during World War II. Without clocks or watches, he would reckon time with makeshift sundials. A shovel handle or fence post served as his gnomon (the shadow casting feature). His fascination with solar timekeeping came with him back to the States.

To escape the humidity and heat of the city of Washington, DC, my family often made for the coast. We could often be found on one of the quiet Delaware beaches. As lovely as most beaches are, they are replete with tiny grains of sand and saltwater, neither of which is especially good for a mechanical watch. So around 1965, my dad had the idea to leave his valuable gold watch safe and dry elsewhere and reckon time with a sundial. He developed the “Sandial®”.  You can tell time plenty well enough for a summer vacation, while your wristwatch or mobile phone stays high and dry in your luggage somewhere “back at the house.”

I hope you’re not surprised to learn that the Sandial did not sell like hotcakes on a Tuesday night. I came across one of the original, 46 year-old blocks of wood that served as the Sandial’s table (a term of art in sundials). I calculated new hour lines, inserted one of dad’s original compasses along with an original gnomon (the triangle piece), and the Sandial tells time as well as ever.

This business of timekeeping got in me too— big time. I served as a visiting Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professor at Cornell University for five years. Along with being a very popular University President, Frank Rhodes got a building named in his honor. Everyday, I walked by Rhodes Hall, and there above was a 3-meter (10 foot) diameter circle, which must have been intended to bear a large outdoor clock. So for the last 13 years, I’ve been contributing to a fund to place a clock up there. Well, it’s done. It is to honor my parents, who worked so hard to get me into such a terrific university and to honor my many remarkable teachers and professors, who nurtured my love of science, mathematics, and ultimately engineering.

Incidentally, this kooky love of horology, the study of timekeeping, led me to enthusiastically convince the people who explore Mars with robot rovers to ensure that the test pattern for the rover cameras be modified just a little so that each one serves as a sundial— on Mars, what we call the “MarsDials.” Check us out on as we help reckon time on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover called Curiosity, which will launch from Earth this November and land on Mars next August.

In keeping with my father and mother’s love of science and sundials, and since Cornell’s Rhodes Hall isn’t especially well-placed for a sundial (it faces Northeast), I have contrived a system that brings sunlight from the roof to the clock through a highly reflective (very, very shiny-on-the-inside) duct. At Solar Noon, when the Sun culminates, that is, reaches its highest point in the sky, the sun-shaped feature will light up. It is the marrying of mechanical and electrical engineering with astronomy. What could be better? Stay tuned as the workers are putting the Solar Noon system in place even as I write.

Among my father’s favorite sundial mottos is this: “Horas non numero nisi serenas;” “I count not the hours, unless they be sunny (bright).” The Rhodes Hall Clock will reckon all the minutes of the day, but glow for the sunny ones.


In the factory


Installation at Rhodes Hall


Keeping time




17 Responses to “Telling Time”

  1. Uthor says:

    Is it ironic that it was installed in the rain?

  2. Terry! says:

    Great entry! Hope you will continue to blog more : ) I am loving the pic of you by the Rhodes Hall Clock…it screams “Back to the Future”!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Oh my gosh! A blog! I was beginning to lose hope! This is a great entry. I especially liked the anecdote about your dad. And, your gift of the clock to Rhodes Hall is wonderful.

  4. Paul Sheerin says:

    Time …what a gift from your parents ! And you passing this on to others !

  5. Jeremy Blum says:

    Awesome! I can’t wait to be at the Dedication on Saturday!

  6. Christopher Nye says:

    Congratulations Bill. It was within a few years of 1965 that your dad made a sales call to where my father worked at the Burrough’s Corporation in Richmond, VA. Announcing himself to whoever greeted him, the response was “we have a Nye working here”. The time they spent together that day started a 46 year journey into the family genealogy for my father who died last December. Though my name is not “Bill” I have had pictures in magazines with captions that refer to me as “Bill” and even on TV interviews as “Bill”. I smile, give a little laugh when they apologize and say “don’t worry, it’s happened before”. I then usually tell them that your Dad was on Wake Island when it was captured by the Japanese in 1942. Thanks for all you do and keep up the good work.

  7. [...] From Phil Plait’s awesome Bad Astronomy blog, Bill Nye (The Science Guy) contrives a sundial at Cornell University that glows when the Sun reaches its daily peak in the sky. [...]

  8. [...] Bill Nye helps create a sundial at Cornell University that glows when the Sun reaches its daily peak in the sky. [via Beth Quittman (my [...]

  9. [...] Bill Nye helps create a sundial at Cornell University that glows when the Sun reaches its daily peak in the sky. [via Beth Quittman (my [...]

  10. BIG FANS says:

    ok ok ok… I know this has nothing to do with the article.. but we just wanted to say HI BILL NYE THE SCIENCE GUY!!! WE LOVE YOU and STILL MISS YOU on TV… we just thought about you and looked you up online… find this site.. NOW.. we are going to investigate the internet for more info on you so we can follow you again Yeaahhhhhh. :) Thanks for the memories

  11. Web Designer says:

    That is an interesting clock. I like the circle above the center. It looks very heavy.

  12. bill mclellan says:

    OMG me and my friend Bill love you Bill and yes both are names are Bill too.I have been watching your show sense i was a young lass.

  13. Francisco d'Anconia says:

    I love that clock ! I think the market is indeed of some stylish clocks that are within the 100 dollar price range.

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  14. Braedy says:

    I love reading these.

  15. BIll Nero says:

    Every young lass in my family has been named Bill for more than eighty generations. i like you.
    (I see you Bill Mclellan. How are you a lass?)

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