This Sunday March 20th the Northern Hemisphere enters The Vernal (Spring) Equinox, an astronomical event in which the plane of the Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun, which occurs twice a year, once in March and again in September. During this event, both day and night are of equal duration across the globe. Ancient cultures like the Mayans would celebrate the occasion by performing rights of fertility. The Norse would worship Eostre, the Norse goddess of fertility and new beginnings, symbolized by eggs and rabbits, traditional symbols of modern day Easter. In addition to these sun worshippers, Ottawa has its own ancient device that harnesses the sun…an old sundial.
At the corner of Bruyère and Sussex in downtown Ottawa there is an unassuming marking on a building that was constructed in 1851. It is the second oldest sundial on the continent (one from 1773 in Quebec City is the oldest). Ottawa’s unique vertical sundials were built by Father Jean-François Allard, who had come from France and assigned as Chaplain to the Mother House.
Besides being a spiritual advisor to the nuns, he was a professor of Geography, Geometry and Mathematics with a keen interest in astronomy and the movement of the sun. Allard got to work designing and building the sundials on the southwest corner of the building and completed them on March 29 1851. It became the first public timepiece in Ottawa and the first of its kind in Canada.
After 165 years in the sun, the dial still maintains the correct time as matched to a photo with accompanying time stamp.
The two dials, 7×8 feet on the west side and approximately 7×4 feet on the east side, use black painted iron “gnomons” that capture the shadow of the sun and mark the designated time carefully with Roman numerals. The western dial has hour lines from 10 AM to 7 PM and the eastern dial has hour lines from 7 AM to 3 PM. These dials predate the use of time zones and show local solar time and they have been giving the correct time since 1851.
Celebrating its 165th anniversary this March 29th, the modest timepiece sits quietly unnoticed in downtown Ottawa, continuing to correctly give the time to all citizens who pass by. I think it might be time to dial in some attention to this timepiece, giving it some “time in the sun” so to speak, a recognition it rightfully deserves as being North America’s second oldest sundial and the National Capital’s first public timepiece.
Andrew King, OttawaRewind.com, March 17, 2016
“Sisters of Charity of Ottawa Sundials” by R. T. Bailey & Sister Louise Seguin SCO, NASS, St. Louis, Aug 2008