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Sundials

Have you ever wondered how people worked out their ideas of telling the time? They used the position of the Sun in the sky. They used sundials

You can tell the time by looking at the shadow cast by the Sun as it shines on the pointer of a sundial. The proper name for the pointer is a gnomon (said 'nom-on')

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 A sundial

A gnomon

Sundials

A sundial works by casting a shadow in different positions, at different times of the day. You can try this for yourself by setting up a shadow-stick (check out the 'Things For You To Do' section). You'll notice that at different times of the day, the shadow is in different positions, and it changes length.

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Shadow animation

Sundials

The Sun is highest in the sky at midday and casts a short shadow. In the afternoon, when the Sun is lower in the sky, the shadow is longer.

The length of the shadow is also affected by the seasons. Winter shadows are longer than Summer shadows. This is because the Sun is lower in the sky in Winter. If you don't remember why have another look at what causes the seasons.

The speed of the shadow depends on the length of the gnomon. For example, if the gnomon is 2 metres tall, the tip of the shadow will move about a third of its height (60cm) in an hour - 1cm per minute. The Eiffel Tower is 300 metres high. The tip of its shadow moves across the ground at a speed of about 1.5 metres per minute. This movement is due to the Earth's rotation.

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Midday
Midday

Afternoon
Afternoon

Sundials

Most sundials just have marks for the daylight hours, when the Sun will actually cast a shadow. However, some show all 24 hours. Noon and midnight appear directly opposite each other, with 6am and 6pm on either side

World Museum Liverpool has a large collection of sundials. You can see some of them by clicking here. Many are very beautiful and detailed. They are lovely things to look at as well as telling the time. You can make your own working sundial by going to the Things For You To Do section.

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Sun dial markings

What next...?

Now we've seen how sundials work what would you like to do next?

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