DESIGNING SUNDIALS by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator


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Adventure Science Center Blog

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DESIGNING SUNDIALS by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

For thousands of years, people have used sundials to measure time using the position of our Sun. In fact, the world’s oldest surviving sundial comes from a tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings (pictured), dating all the way back to 1500 BCE - that's at least 3,500 years ago!

University of Basel Sundial
Significant find: After thousands of years the Egyptian sun dial was brought back to light. © University of Basel

While the Egyptians were the first to use sundials, they were certainly not the last. The Greeks used a sundial called a pelekinon, which were fine-tuned to predict time accurately throughout the year. During the Zhou Dynasty in China, sundials known as rìguǐ came into prominence. Learn more about the history of sundials here»

While there are many types of sundials, they all follow the same general design, indicating the time by casting a shadow onto a disc known as a dial face. This face can be made of just about anything from a paper plate to polished marble and come in many shapes. It usually has notches arrayed around it, known as hour lines, that help you note the time as the Sun rises and sets. The shadow is created by the gnomon placed in the center of the dial, which can be anything that can fully cast a shadow across the face of the sundial. Here in Tennessee, as well as throughout the rest of the northern hemisphere, the gnomon is oriented so that it points slightly north.

Want to make your own sundial at home?

Here are some "pro tips" from my personal experience:

  • Making a sundial is A LOT simpler than you may think. In fact, an extremely basic sundial requires nothing more than a stick around 1-1 ½ ft long, 6-12 small stones and a device that tells time like a watch or a cell phone. That’s all you need!
  • You also need to consider placement with your sundial design. I made sure to put mine in an area that gets full exposure from the sun throughout the day. Once you've found your sundial spot, just plant the stick in the ground and don’t forget to angle it slightly north.

  • You start building at any time of day, but be mindful that you won’t be able to accurately mark any hours that have already passed until the next day. Starting at the top of the hour, I used stones labeled with a permanent marker to mark the place where the shadow from the stick falls on the ground. As each hour passed, I placed a new stone to mark that time (pictured).

That's it! I hope reading this has inspired you to try your hand at building a sundial of your very own. Don't forget to join us Saturday, September 29 for a day full of engineering fun during our Family Fun Labs: Make It!

- Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

Posted by Anna Leigh Goolsby at 12:18 PM
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