Time Takes Its Toll

Missing sundial becomes object of campus research

by Elise Gibson, with Sarah Campbell ’10

The originall Smith College sundial was a gft of the class of 1883.The class of 1883 had immortality in mind when it marked its 40th Reunion by giving the college that most ancient of   timepieces—a sundial. Its ornate bronze faceplate, designed by Faith Leavens 1900 and Mabel Webb, was carved with peacocks, a symbol of eternal life. Completing the class gift were two elegant curving benches, also decorated with a peacock motif. Almost immediately, however, the bronze face became the repeated target of thieves. By the 1930s, the college stopped replacing its authentic face, opting instead for “the kind of sundial face you could find at a garden store,” said David Dempsey, associate director of museum services.

That wasn’t the end of the lovely sundial’s troubles. In the 1980s, to make way for Bass Hall, the entire sundial and bench set was moved to a lawn along Green Street. There, time took its toll on the sundial; the crumbling marble pedestal was patched with concrete, its steel supporting rods rusted. Finally, three years ago, the whole thing disappeared, leaving only two benches and a marble base.

That base caught the eye of Kara Noble, who walked by it every day on her way to her office in Neilson as administrator for the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute. “I kept noticing this broken thing on campus and I didn’t know what it was,” she said. A trip to the College Archives solved the mystery for her. Later, Noble mentioned it to Bosiljka Glumac, associate professor of geosciences and co-organizer with history professor Richard Lim of a Kahn Institute project, “Telling Time: Its Meaning and Measurement.” They decided to research the sundial as part of the time project. The broken pedestal was found in a campus tool crib.

But what of the sundial face? For help, they looked to David Dempsey, another Kahn fellow, to lead the effort to recreate the lost face. He enlisted a student, Makana Hirose ’10, who drew a negative of the sundial’s face by hand, using photographs and a rubbing from the College Archives as guides. With Hirose’s graphic in hand, Joseph O’Rourke’s computer science class printed a 3-D negative of the sundial, complete with the 1883 class motto, “Opportunity has short measure.”

Hirose’s traditional process and O’Rourke’s technological approach are both paths to the same goal: a mold to cast one or more sundial faces. “I hope to make many to have as extras, as well as to sell some to raise money to support the project,” Dempsey said.

“We hope that with the new dial on a more durable pedestal we can get things back to a presentable condition,” he said.

Fall ’10 SAQ