The history of the sundial is partly that of the human being, and his quest for the knowledge of time.
The existence of sundials dates from more than 3,500 years ago. At first, they were made in the shape of a stone obelisk, before that, time was measured by the observation of a significant feature in the landscape, whose shade patterns would dictate the time of our ancestors.
Cultures of thousand years ago possessed enough scientific knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to develop items which enabled them to determine the approximate passing of time. For hundreds of years, the clicsidras or waterclocks were used, which had either the shape of simple recipients, or were rather complex formations of furniture or even floating constructions, with cisterns, figures etc. Other clocks worked with sand, fire, incense, candles etc. The ancient monks would take turns at reading the Bible throughout the night to calculate the passing of the hours and thus determine the time of the different prayers.
These clocks were introduced into Spain by the Romans, who knew how to make them, and who used to place them in villas and on paths. Later, their use declined until the arrival of the Arabs, who spread their use all over Europe. Flintstone workers and plaster makers used them in their work. The Spanish king, Alfonso X the Wise studied the subject and he had works of Arabic and Jewish authors translated into Spanish.
The Sundial eventually dominated the other systems thanks to its regularity, and for centuries it was the way of determining the different times of the day. Its decline began with the birth of the mechanical clock, although it coexisted with the latter for some time during which both models were built.
We know of many different types of sundials; from the small ring, or the stick, to the great building or square. These were built on the outside of walls and inside residences or churches, where a small ray of sun marked the hour on floors and columns. As well as the ancient which we can still find on church tower churches and streets, its use was extended to so many different sizes that you could even find the so called “pocket dials” which you could carry in your pocket; hence their name.
In other cultures, such as the Maya or the Hindu, great constructions were made which, due to their shape and orientation, constituted immense monumental dials, which became true astronomic observatories, where solstices and equinoxes could be verified.
Another instrument of those times was the so called noctuario, nocturlabio or star dial, which became an instrument for sailors, which was formed by various concentric circles which, by using the stars as a reference, could provide information on the approximate time at night, tides, moon phases, etc.
Magnificent public collections are kept in many cities, and it is easy to find old clocks in navy museums or in science museums, and even in planetariums.
There are also plenty of dials which greet us and show us the passing of the day on the walls of old buildings or parks.