Arms Sundial


Queens' College Cambridge - Sundial - JPEG 42KSundial

This photo dates from late 1968. The shadow of the gnomon lies exactly on the 2 o'clock line. The shadow of the ball can be seen at bearing SWBS at roughly 25° elevation. See how to read the sundial for more details, and an online Virtual Sundial model of this dial.

The first sundial at this location in Old Court was erected May-July 1642, when entries in the college accounts show payments for stone, gilt, painting, etc. (see below).

It is to be noted that the bell of the clock in the chapel bell-tower above was cast in 1637, which allows us to surmise that the sundial was erected because of the need to set a clock, or perhaps that the introduction of a clock in the tower meant that a sundial previously on the tower had to be displaced downwards.

The dial was originally painted onto flat blocks of stone set into the brick wall.

The original accounts for erecting the dial in May - June 1642 are:

  £  s. d
For stone and worke about ye chappell diall   1. 14. 0
For giult for ye Diall   0. 4. 6
To ye painter for diall   0. 5. 0
For ye cock of ye diall   0. 18. 0
For oyle and white lead and hire of haire cloths   0. 6. 0

The gnomon and square background of the dial are just visible in outline in Loggan's view of 1685.

In or not long after 1733 the antiquary Cole recorded:

... on ye Wall of ye Chapel and over ye Door wch leads to it is also lately painted a very elegant Sun Dial with all ye signs. This is no small ornamt to ye Court to enliven it.

It is not clear from Cole's account whether the design was new in 1733, or merely repainted.

In The History of the University of Cambridge, 1753, Carter records:

The Sundial, on the North side of the principal Court, and under the Clock-Dial, is counted a Curiosity, being beautifully ornamented with a variety of useful Furniture, the whole being the work of the great Sir Isaac Newton.

Carter's attribution is reproduced without question in later histories throughout the 19th century. In Dyer's History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, 1814, he writes:

The eastern court contains nothing remarkable, except it may be the dial on the north side, as being curiously ornamented, and the invention of Sir Isaac Newton.

The College in fact has no evidence as to who designed the sundial. Newton cannot have designed the 1642 dial, for he was then not yet born, and he cannot have designed the ca 1733 dial, for he was by then dead. Newton had a great interest in sundials, but we do not know whether he ever had any involvement the Queens' sundial. As a historian, Carter was not renowned for accuracy, and we cannot place much weight on his attribution.

The earliest recognisable depiction of the sundial is Storer's view of 1829. For some period in the mid-19th century the sundial was useless, having no gnomon, see photo. The gnomon was later restored (probably during the 1864 repainting), but without the ball for taking readings, see photo.

The dial is known to have been redecorated in:

In 1968, various zodiacal symbols which had become corrupt or had been lost over the years were restored. The scheme is that each zodiac point displays two symbols: that of the zodiac itself, and that of the planet traditionally associated with that zodiac. The ancients knew only of seven planet-like objects: the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The scheme for associating seven objects with twelve zodiacs is that the true planets appear twice, and the Sun and Moon once each. The complete scheme is as follows:

Zodiac signs and planet signs - GIF 7k

Also in 1968, two figures in the ORTUS SOLIS column were corrected: 8:6 changed to 8:0 and 8:7 to 8:30. However, Leo was drawn with only one front leg, as you can see in the photo: this was corrected in 1971. The bottom figure of the LONGITUDO column, 16:30 (which had been corruptly 6:34 until 1948), was erroneously eliminated: this was meant to be the length of daylight at midsummer.

The stone on which the dial was painted was rendered with cement in 1968 to provide a less flaky ground for the paint. The 1968 rendering failed very quickly (as can be seen at the top of this photograph), and the dial had to be rendered again and repainted in 1971. The table of numbers for the moondial was never rendered, and the paint there subsequently failed to adhere, requiring redecoration in 1998.

It is unfortunate that the 1968 and 1971 paintings of the dial were inaccurate. The vertical 12 o'clock line should properly align with the intersection of the line of the gnomon with the plane of the wall; instead the artist has drawn it in alignment with the top strut of the gnomon. Also incorrect was the omission of colons as separators between the hours and minutes figures in the LONGITUDO column.

Links to other sundial pages:

Robin Walker - 1998, at the vernal equinox, slightly revised 2000, at the vernal equinox.


Return to images index