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Sundial Makers and Techniques

The sundials on display in the new exhibition Saving Time: Collecting and Conserving Sundials highlight exquisite craftsmanship by important sundial makers, such as Paul Reinmann, Johann Martin, and Johann Willebrand. These instrument makers were known for their elegant, well-made dials.

The central German town of Nuremberg was home to Paul Reinmann, as well as other important ivory diptych sundial-making families, from 1550 to 1700. The instrument makers in this town benefited from its establishment as an imperial city, as well as its geographic location and progressive attitudes towards foreign merchants. Nuremberg’s location on a trade route allowed instrument makers access to a larger audience of affluent consumers. With such favorable conditions it’s no wonder the town became a popular area for instrument makers to set up shop. 

  Image 1: Paul Reinmann, Diptych sundial. Nuremberg, Germany, 1595 (Adler Collection, DPW-27).

 

Image 1: Paul Reinmann, Diptych sundial. Nuremberg, Germany, 1595 (Adler Collection, DPW-27).

A diptych sundial by Paul Reinmann (image 1) shows his unique method of decoration. He was one of the first makers to incorporate decorative metal elements and lovely carved borders, and to use a maker’s stamp to distinguish his work.

Diptych sundials are two sheets of material, in this case ivory, hinged together with interior features of a compass, a string gnomon, as well as pin gnomons that act as shadow casters. Upon first glance, this style may seem simple, but with closer inspection you notice that these objects were much more than simple sundials. It is not uncommon for diptych sundials to have other tools, such as lunar volvelles or tiny wind vanes that determine wind direction when assembled.

Additional instruments featured in this exhibition come from another German city, Augsburg. The style of dial that bears the name of this city is a portable, equinoctial dial. That is, the hour plate is set up parallel to the equator. An Augsburg style dial was useful at a variety of latitudes and therefore used by travelers. As in Nuremberg, Augsburg-based families of instrument makers were recognized for the craftsmanship their instruments bore. 

  Image 2: Johann Mathias Willebrand, Augsburg-type sundial. Augsburg, Germany, 1678-1726 (Adler Collection, M-299). 

 

Image 2: Johann Mathias Willebrand, Augsburg-type sundial. Augsburg, Germany, 1678-1726 (Adler Collection, M-299). 

One such maker is Johann Martin, whose fine engraving style became a hallmark. Engraving is a decorative process of removing metal in a pattern from the working surface. This technique differs from etching, which uses caustic substances to remove metal, in the use of hand tools to selectively remove metal from a surface. The artisan uses a hand tool, called a graver or burin, and hand pressure to remove metal in a pattern. This decorative process requires careful, methodical work in order to achieve desired results. 

Johann Martin’s stepson, Johann Mathias Willebrand, continued in the family business and made the richly engraved piece M-299 (image 2). This dial has the twelve zodiacal figures engraved on the hour plate, which indicates the location of the sun in the zodiac. The materials—silver and gilt brass—suggest a consumer who was quite wealthy. 

The fabrication and joining of the moving parts of this Augsburg sundial are quite stunning—gilt metal rivets, threaded feet, and precisely-made hinges that all collapse into a slender piece that fits into a sharkskin and velvet case. An incredible amount of training, skill, and patience was needed to make such a complicated instrument. The fact that so many original parts are intact is an indication of just how well-made this dial was.

These dials and many more are on display in the new exhibition Saving Time: Collecting and Conserving Sundials.

Written by Jennifer Brand, collections manager for the Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy at the Adler Planetarium.

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