Sundials in Oxford today

Sundials in Oxford today

Image. Sundial, Brasenose College, dated 1719.  Source: Robin Stevens, 20 February 2010. Licence: CC BY-NC-ND.

Commentary. From the nineteenth century onward, the nostalgia already characteristic of Oxford’s built environment in 1600 was powerfully reinforced by the historicism and romanticism prompted by industrialisation. Although many of the dials documented in the early modern period have vanished, still more have subsequently been created to replace them.  As a consequence, Oxford may possess a greater density of historical sundials than anywhere else on earth, a density dramatically enhanced in the twentieth century by the world’s richest collection of portable sundials in the Museum of the History of Science. 

Sundials in Oxford can be explored through the following resources.

  • Sundial: an introduction and catalogue of the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, the Museo Galileo (Florence), the British Museum (London), and the Museum Boerhaave (Leiden).  Scrolling through the handlist to Epact reveals hundred of astronomical compendia and dials of great variety. Those in Florence are listed separately here.
  • The Sundial Trail: an itinerary listing many of the sundials in Oxford colleges and gardens.
  • Historical notes on sundials in Oxford, provided by R. T. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, vol I, pt 2: Mathematics (Oxford, 1923), 97-145, including commentary on 16th and 17th-century sundials scattered around Oxford (pp. 101-21), and discussion of portable and other dials in the MHS (pp. 121-45). 

Student project.  Students are invited to photograph sundials in their own colleges, research their origin and history via Gunther and elsewhere, and post them on Cabinet, tagging their location on the map provided.

Credits: Howard Hotson (December 2017)