A note from the designer
People often ask what is so special about the Spot-On Sundial and
how it came to be designed. If you too are interested in this, here
is the full story!
I have been interested in sundials for 25 years or more, ever since
I attempted to make a sundial from a vertical post stuck in the
ground and found it didn't work (more
details). Later, when I found out why it didn't work from a
book in the library, I started making painted wooden sundials (more
A few years later, a friend suggested I should join the British
Sundial Society, and at the following Annual General Meeting,
I made a suggestion for organising a periodic Awards
Scheme. At the end of that meeting, I was invited to join the
Council with responsibility for setting up the scheme.
In 1996, I had become very interested in the Internet, and suggested
that the British Sundial Society should set up an information site
about sundials. At that stage in the development of the Internet,
it was not at all clear how much money a website would cost and
what benefits it would bring, so the idea fell on stony ground.
So I decided to set up www.sundials.co.uk
on my own account, and it has subsequently become the leading world
internet site on sundials.
For many years, I and others in the world of sundials, have been
concerned with one major problem - "Why are garden sundials so awful,
and what on earth can be done to improve them?" Why they are so
awful is fairly easy to answer - it is very easy to make something
which looks like a sundial and to sell it as a garden ornament to
people who are not really interested in whether it works as a sundial.
(Such sundials can now be imported by the container load from the
Far East at a price of £3 (about $5 or E5) each. These objects should
not really be dignified with the name of sundials, because they
are not capable of telling the time from the sun. (In addition,
many of them are badly made, and very few come with any instructions
on how to set them up).
In the year 1999, my wife very kindly took me on a bus tour of
Guatemala, and, in between seeing the extensive Maya ruins and enjoying
the spectacular scenery and friendly people, we had a certain amount
of time waiting around for buses. Deprived of both computer and
workshop, I started thinking about the garden sundial problem, and
came up with an idea - a split gnomon would remove the difficulties
in setting up a horizontal sundial, and, if it was well made and
had good instructions with it, it could also be very accurate. Also,
I thought, it would provide a good opportunity to branch away from
the traditional designs, which are usually feeble echoes of seventeenth
or eighteenth century dials, and to produce a clean modern design
appropriate to the century we live in.
Thinking these ideas is the easy bit! The difficult part is putting
them into practice. I very nearly gave up, because it seemed that
they were going to be impossibly expensive to make, and would thus
never get any orders. And then I had a stroke of luck - I met somebody
who imported goods from India, and had an agent there, and he put
me in touch with a company near Delhi who, after three prototypes,
produced a high-quality product at a price which would make it possible
to sell in European markets.
The rest is history - we have so far (2010) sold nearly 1000 Spot-On
brass sundials, mostly to customers in England, Europe, and North
America, but with a few going to other far-flung locations such
as the Caribbean and Bali.
A few years later, we introduced arange of stainless steel sundials.
These are made from 10 mm. stainless steel, so are virtually impossible
to damage, and are thus suitable for public parks and other open
locations. They are fixed to a plinth or other horizontal surface
using concealed fixings bonded in with resin, which makes them extremely
difficult to steal. And they have a great "wow factor" with the
glint of the sun to advertise their presence at a distance, the
stunning reflections in the mirror-polished surface to give fascinating
reflections of the sky and the surroundings, and the "event" of
the shaft of light shining through the slit in the gnomon at solar
Innovation has continued with the introduction of three new designs.
The first was the brass polar
sundial (modelled on a large sundial I designed for the Millennium
on the north bank of the Thames in central London,
Next came the development of a Universal Vertical Sundial, consisting
of two hinged plates which could be set an any angle from about
10 to 70 degrees to compensate for the declination of the wall,
and to ensure that the dialplate faced due South. This was quite
a good idea, but it proved very expensive to manufacture, and was
also very heavy, so we never put it into production.
Following this, I went back to an idea from some years before, to
make an equatorial dial in which the dialplate had 24 spokes like
a wheel. The idea had been developed in discussions with Sustrans,
the cycle charity, but there was insufficient funding to proceed
with it then. A successful prototype was produced, and it was then
put into production as the Skywheel.
I had always wanted to have in the range a sundial suitable for
equatorial latitudes. Horizontal dials do not work well in the Tropics
(say between 30 deg. N and 30 deg. S) because the angle between
the gnomon and the dialplate is small (being equal to the latitude)
and this means that the hour lines are very close together, and
thus difficult to read. There is, of course, a method of tilting
a horizontal sundial designed for one latitude to work accurately
in another, but it demands making a plinth or other support tilted
in a north-south direction at an angle equal to the difference between
the two latitudes, and is thus not widely used. My idea was to use
a polar sundial mounted on a central spindled so that the gnomon
could be titled to any angle beaten 0 for the Equator and around
70 deg for northern Norway/ This Universal
Polar Dial can be set to the angle of the latitude of its first
location, and then adjusted to the angle of the latitude of any
other location (in the same hemisphere) which it may be moved to