Librarians, historians, gardeners, the city arborist and a host of others around Portland have been involved in a nearly year-long search for a sundial, that ancient timepiece supplanted by the clock several hundred years ago.

They were not looking for just any sundial, but a new and improved version patented by scientist and inventor Albert Cushing Crehore in 1905. Unlike a traditional sundial, with a flat dial and an upright triangular blade to cast shadows, Crehore’s featured a partial cylinder supported by four pillars. The design would make it “an accurate timepiece at all times when the sun is shining,” the patent application said.

In his 1944 autobiography, Crehore listed only a few of his sundials that were built, but said one was installed somewhere in Portland. He didn’t say where.

The search for the sundial’s possible Portland location is time-sensitive, since the people who care most deeply about gnomonics (the science of sundials) will arrive here Thursday for the annual conference of the North American Sundial Society. The conference runs through Sunday.

Society members reached out to Portlanders last August, hoping that if they put the word out early, the vaunted Crehore sundial might be found before the clock metaphorically struck midnight. So far, emails, record searches and phone calls have not cast any light on the sundial mystery. No one seems to know where it was, or is, in Portland.

The Crehore sundial may yet turn up. The presence of 40 or so sundial enthusiasts may jog someone’s memory, or a picture of one of Crehore’s sundials in other locations may prompt someone to say, “Oh, that sundial.” But either way, the convention attendees plan to have a good time talking about timekeeping in Portland and touring some of the city’s easier-to-find sundials, including ones on Baxter Boulevard and in Evergreen Cemetery.


“It would have been nice if somebody found it, but we didn’t really think it would turn up,” said Jack Aubert, 73, of Falls Church, Virginia, one of the conference organizers. “I suggested Portland as (the conference location) because I’ve been there and thought it was a great city. And we’ve already been to Portland, Oregon. We found out from one of our members that one of Crehore’s sundials might be there, by coincidence, and we thought it would be great to find it.”


When Aubert wanted to get people in Portland looking for the Crehore sundial, he began last August by reaching out to the Portland Public Library. He was connected with Samantha Duckworth, a reference librarian who specializes in science and technology questions.

She researched the library’s collection and books on sundials and found nothing on Crehore. She read his autobiography online, where he named the locations of his sundials, including Yonkers, New York, Ohio State University in Columbus, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Portland, Maine.

Since no location in Portland was specified, some in the society felt that meant it was made for a private residence. So Duckworth put out an email, through the state’s Cooperative Extension, to dozens of gardeners and people interested in gardens. She also contacted local historical societies, antiques dealers and local media.

She also talked to Portland’s city arborist, Jeff Tarling. In America, sundials weren’t used for telling time that much, since clocks were already invented when the nation was formed.


A sundial occupies a small park on the corner of Baxter Boulevard and Vannah Avenue in Portland.

A sundial occupies a small park on the corner of Baxter Boulevard and Vannah Avenue in Portland. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

American sundials are often memorials in public spaces. The one on Baxter Boulevard was placed there in 1925 in honor of the late Mayor James Phinney Baxter, who promoted creating the pleasant boulevard along Back Cove that is named for him. A sundial was placed in Portland’s evergreen cemetery around 1970 to “mark the transience of the world,” according to the Friends of Evergreen website.

On Friday, society members will visit those two sundials and several others in the area, including vertical sundials on Hubbard Hall’s tower at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Tarling sent pictures of known Crehore sundials to city employees, including people who work in the parks or on public art projects. But the photos did not jog anyone’s memory.

“It’s a pretty intricate-looking structure,” Tarling said. “I think someone would remember if they saw it.”


Records indicate Crehore sundials were designed to be only about a foot-and-a-half in height, width and depth. So it could be hidden by a fence or a bush.


Crehore’s autobiography offered few clues. He was born in 1868 in Cleveland, Ohio, the home of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, which was just beginning to become a center of industry. As a boy he dabbled in sundials, then went to Yale University and spent time teaching science at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He published several books and papers on various scientific theories, including one on determining the speed of projectiles (before radar guns) and one on a better method of sending telegrams.

He briefly mentions spending time one summer on Pine Point Beach, near Old Orchard Beach, but Maine makes no other appearances in his book.

“A lot of people asked their grandparents about it, but we’ve hit a lot of dead ends,” said Duckworth. “It’s a little disappointing, but not surprising.”

The conference will include two days of presentations by members from around the country. They mostly involve topics that only someone with a deep appreciation for sundials could find riveting. There’ll be a talk about sundials in Catalonia, Spain, and one on how the “detection of gravity waves improves sundial accuracy.” There will be a demonstration of how to build a wooden sundial and an exploration of a pinhole sundial.

This distinctive sundial is on Commercial Street near the entrance to the Maine State Pier in Portland.

This distinctive sundial is on Commercial Street near the entrance to the Maine State Pier in Portland. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer


Though most us think of sundials as garden decorations, society members see them as a fascinating way to tell time using the most basic materials, along with a strong understanding and appreciation of how the solar system works.


Before there were digital clocks on a computer screen, or iPhones or even wind-up clocks, people could look at the sun and the shadows and figure out when to eat lunch.

“It’s always fascinated me to think, here’s a device that lets us mark our existence, hour by hour, with no moving parts,” said Frederick Sawyer, 66, of Manchester, Connecticut, president of the 300-member sundial society. “It uses the relationship between the sun and the Earth, yet it can be something so small you can hold in your hand.”

Yes, there were pocket sundials at some point. In fact, Sawyer said, The Marquis de Lafayette, famous French friend to the American Revolution, presented one to George Washington.

Sundials date to ancient Egypt, and were a primary way for people to tell seasons and time of day until around the 17th century. The concept is simple: As the sun appears to move across the sky, the gnomon (or pointer) casts a shadow across hour lines on the dial. But the gnomon and dial can take many forms. Sometimes rods are used instead of the traditional fin-shaped gnomons, and sometimes the dials are vertical instead of horizontal.

In Europe, you can still find public sundials set up to tell time, not as memorials to a civic hero, Aubert said. Even when clocks became common, lots of people felt the only way to accurately set their clock was to check it against a sundial. That practice continued into the 1800s, he said.

Today the world runs on clock time, with exactly 24 hours in each day. But solar time is based on an average of 24 hours in each day, said Sawyer. Clocks were “too dumb” to keep up with the sun’s time-keeping skill, Sawyer said.

You might say sundials were the original smart devices.

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