| 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 â€śSandialÂ®â€ť.Â 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 â€śback at the house.â€ť
I hope youâ€™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 Sandialâ€™s table (a term of art in sundials). I calculated new hour lines, inserted one of dadâ€™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 tooâ€” 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, Iâ€™ve been contributing to a fund to place a clock up there. Well, itâ€™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 sundialâ€” on Mars, what we call the â€śMarsDials.â€ť Check us out on Planetary.org 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 motherâ€™s love of science and sundials, and since Cornellâ€™s Rhodes Hall isnâ€™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 fatherâ€™s favorite sundial mottos is this: â€śHoras non numero nisi serenas;” â€śI count not the hours, unless they be sunny (bright).â€ť The Rhodes Hall Clock will reckon all the minutes of the day, but glow for the sunny ones.