About :: History of Original Sundial



In 1914, the Columbia College Class of 1885 presented Columbia University with a landmark: a sixteen-ton dark-green granite sphere, placed at the center of campus. An inscription at the base, “Horam Expecta Veniet” (Await the hour, it will come) remains today, although the sphere itself, having been removed from campus in 1946, is now located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Columbia University Sundial with Maison Francaise, St. Paul's Chapel, & Kent Hall in background  
  A postcard of the Columbia University Sundial with Maison Francaise, St. Paul's Chapel, & Kent Hall in background.  
  Columbia University Sundial with Maison Francaise, St. Paul's Chapel, & Kent Hall in background  
Columbia University Sundial with Low Library & Earl Hall in background.  

The sphere served not only as a focal point for Columbia's campus, but also a meeting place, and once a day (at noon), it cast a shadow and marked the date. A pamphlet, which was distributed after the Class of 1885 presented the gift, clarifies how the monument functioned as a timekeeper. It explains that the “ball casts a great oval shadow upon the base, and it is from the moving edges of this shadow that the time is ascertained.” Two brass plates remain to this day on the base-one may still see each of the months of the year engraved in the bronze plates in its base, as well as various dates. The shadow of the sphere would intersect with the date and month at noon on each day: “To use the dial on any date, as, for instance, May 25, it is merely necessary to wait until the shadow edge cuts the hole marked 25 on the May circular date.”

Despite these and other official explanations, some confusion as to the functionality of the monument persisted. An article in Columbiana's archives mentions the tongue-in-cheek advice of one Morningside Heights resident, on how best to deduce the time from the granite gnomon:

“All you have to do is climb on top of the marble [sic] ball there. You can see the clock in front of Hartley Hall. Thousands of freshman have done it.”

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the monument would become a favored element of campus life. Even its initial placement, though, proved to be a matter of public concern. The Class of 1885 originally hoped to place the sphere in the center of what was W. 116th Street, and what now is College Walk. A 1910 report from New York City's Commissioner of Public Works and the Chief Engineer in Charge of Highways objected to the placement of the seven-foot-high sphere in the center of such a busy thoroughfare.

At one point, the gnomon was thought to be the largest perfectly-spherical piece of granite on earth. For more than three decades, it reigned in the middle of campus, until, beginning in 1944, the granite developed a series of cracks. Despite protective fencing and steel reinforcements, the cracks worsened, and a decision was made to remove the sphere during the winter break of 1946. It was feared, according to a New York Times article published on December 20, 1946, that the “large cracks made it unsafe for the landmark to remain” in such an accessible, popular, and frequently-trafficked location.

The same New York Times article, along with many other sources at the time, claimed that the sphere was removed to a Bronx stone yard and destroyed. However, the University was contacted by an art curator in Michigan during the summer of 2001, and informed that in fact, the sixteen-ton granite sphere hadn't been destroyed, but was, instead, located in an Ann Arbor field-the property having been acquired from an individual with as-yet-undetermined Columbia-affiliations.

Despite efforts to restore the sun dial, including recent interest from Steven Pulimood CC '03, the granite sphere has never been replaced. To that end, Sundial, Columbia's first University-wide calendaring application, was developed in part to commemorate its 20th-century predecessor.

Design elements of Sundial are based upon the original gnomon and base; the image on the right side of the header of each page within the application shows the top of the granite sphere, as seen from South Field Lawn, with Kent Hall and St. Paul's chapel flanking it. The image at the top left is a representation of days of the month engraved in the bronze plates of the sun dial's base. The lettering used to spell out SUNDIAL is based upon the lettering of the base, as well.

Related Links

Restoring the Sundial - from Columbia College Today

116th was Gnomon's Land - from the Columbia Spectator

Student on Quest for Sundial's Lost Ball - from the Columbia Spectator

Where is the Sundial? - from the Columbia Spectator

Photos courtesy of Columbia University Archives - Columbiana Library.
Vintage Postcard courtesy of Micheal Susi.