Set in stone: Belmont County sundial is a one-of-a-kind creation

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BETHESDA, Ohio – Bill Mead’s world is a labor of love.

From the house he built to the 23,000 trees he planted, everything on his 40 acres of land has been a project from the heart.

Not far from the greenhouse he constructed and right beside the water garden he created is the centerpiece of Mead’s yard: his sundial.

Homemade. Mead built the sundial in the early ’90s. It took him more than 400 hours to complete and half of that time was devoted solely to mathematics.

“And that’s with a good calculator,” Mead chuckled, emphasizing the importance of getting each groove in the stone just right.

Every 15 minutes is marked on the sundial and the precise location of each mark had to be calculated individually by using a formula Mead said “went clear across the top of the tablet.”

Precision. Part of his calculations also involved finding the exact latitude and longitude of the spot in his yard where he wanted to put the sundial.

Sundials function on sun time, which isn’t the same as the mean time shown on clocks and watches.

For example, although the clock says it’s noon at the same time in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the sun is not directly overhead both states at once, meaning their sun times are slightly off. So even though it appears the sun is shining bright, it’s not directly over Mead’s sundial in Belmont County, Ohio, at the same time it is over in Philadelphia.

In fact, sun noon at Mead’s house is 24 minutes and 19 seconds after sun noon in Philadelphia.

Therefore, each sundial must be adjusted to its exact coordinates in order to show the sun time.

“[This sundial] will work no where else in the Northern Hemisphere except here,” Mead said.

Important angle. The stone for Mead’s sundial came from a monument dealer and he taught himself how to do the rest by reading Sundials: Their Theory and Construction.

The sundial consists of a triangular piece of stone called a gnomon that sits on top of a larger, square stone. The gnomon must point directly north.

The only critical angle is the one at the bottom of the gnomon near the center of the sundial. That angle determines how the gnomon will cast its shadow and tell the time.

It must be the same angle as the latitude from the equator. A sundial located at 43 degrees latitude would need a 43-degree angle on its gnomon.

Construction. To construct this timepiece, Mead covered the stone by gluing a rubber blanket to it. He cut 1/4-inch wide marks in the rubber where he wanted the marks for the clock to be. He also had to cut out all the other marks he wanted on his sundial.

Then he sandblasted the stone where the rubber had been cut and painted the sandblasted marks black.

“It’s one of those things I have been pleased with ever since,” he said.

On Mead’s sundial, which cost about $500 to make, Roman numerals indicate Eastern Standard Time, while Egyptian numerals indicate daylight-saving time.

Mead’s sundial also has a calendar that allows him to calculate how many minutes the sundial is off on a given day.

Since the Earth travels around the sun in an ellipse and not a perfect circle, the gravity gets stronger and weaker throughout the year.

As Earth gets closer and farther away from the sun, the gravitational pull causes Earth to move faster and slower, altering the sundial’s time.

Accuracy. Once he has accounted for gravity, Mead said he can set his watch by the time on his sundial.

Although Mead enjoyed making his sundial, it was a tedious job.

“If I tried to stay with it too very long I’d make mistakes,” he said.

Mead made two trial runs with wood before he ever touched the stone.

He tried to take a shortcut on the math with the first one and ended up 12 1/2 minutes off. When he made his second attempt he took his time and got it right.

His third attempt was carved in stone.

“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” he said confidently.

Mead said his next project might be even more difficult than the sundial. He is considering building an analemma.

The figure-eight-shaped analemma shows the position of sun at a certain location throughout the year.

Despite its difficulty, Mead says he can conquer any project with a bit of determination.

Through the years. Time keeping has come a long way through the years.

According to the North American Sundial Society, the first time keepers probably put a stick in the ground and drew marks to indicate where the shadow fell at certain times.

Even with the advent of clocks, the idea of sundials hasn’t disappeared – instead it has evolved into a hobby and decoration.

In fact, Mead’s craftsmanship is one of at least 400 sundials on the continent, according to the society.

For Mead, a sundial was something he always wanted, not because he didn’t have a watch, but because he had a genuine sundial interest.

“I’m not concerned with what time it is,” he said. “I could buy a $10 Timex.”

(Janelle Baltputnis welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 21, or by e-mail at janelleb@farmanddairy.com.)

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