Become a Friend

In time, on time, out of time

Author: Rachel

TIME. Keeping time, saving time. On time, in time. The hand of the clock guides us from dawn to dusk and back round again. The ticking heart of our existence, time has preoccupied people … since, well, the beginning of time.

In England, time began to become part of our day-to-day lives when the Saxons brought us scratch dials. These were a method of dividing their days and nights into eight divisions known as ‘tides’. Later, during the Middle Ages, this model was adapted for ecclesiastical purposes to herald prayer recitals at specific times of the day, known as the Divine Offices. These dials are more commonly referred to as mass dials. True to their name, these dials were generally etched into south-facing walls in order to catch the sun and were about the size of a dinner-plate: approximately 8 - 9” in diameter. Whilst their form varies, these are generally incised circles, arcs or dots with scratched lines radiating from the centre point, where the gnomon would be found. Gnomons are the element which projects at right-angles from the centre of the dial and indicates the time of day by the position of the shadows cast. As most gnomons would have been formed of timber pegs, few, if any, survive today.

Originally mass dials would have been located near the main door or priest’s door; however, owing to rebuilding and restoration works, they can now be found anywhere on a church building. Of course, over the passage of time, countless of these simple dials could have been lost, discarded or destroyed.

Chronology of design is uncertain; however, in general terms the earliest mass dials were formed of simple circles with radiating lines; these were followed by versions with a bottom arc of pin-point dots. Mass dials with numerals around the circumference are much later and quite rare.

 In the 14th century more sophisticated mechanical clocks, allowing more accurate timekeeping, were introduced to great English cathedrals, such as Wells Cathedral c.1390 (see photo below).

Over the course of the next century or so, use of mechanical clocks gradually spread throughout the country, however mass dials were also still commonly used.

As scientific understanding of the relationship between the sun and the Earth increased, the sun-dial we are familiar with today began to rise in popularity. In these, the gnomon was orientated to true celestial North in relation to local latitude. This meant that every location requires bespoke calculations, such that the incised lines are graduated to give accurate local times.

Sun-dials can take many forms, but architecturally, they are vertical with a central gnomon; within this complicated science there are, of course, many further classifications. These time-pieces could be formed of many different materials, but stone, bronze and painted schemes are by far the most common. As well as being functional, these sun-dials became attractive centre-pieces on building facades - a celebration of science and art. Indeed, by the end of the 16th century, the humble incised dial had been eclipsed by the fanciful sun-dials and practical mechanical clock.

Time had been called on the mass dial. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sun-dials became far grander affairs of intricate carving, ostentatious decoration and sage inscriptions.

Whatever way you look at it, time has come a long way.