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6/30/2016 A sense of time and place: New courthouse sundial to be installed
The fact that the Mountain Time Zone meridian is the eastern Custer County line is not lost on county cartographer Charlie French. Intrigued by mapping, history, and the determination of place and time, French is seeing to it that the county courthouse now has an apparent solar time demarcation on the front lawn. Taking advantage of the summer solstice on June 20, he literally nailed down the farthest reach of the flagpole shadow. On a true north line surveyed by county commissioner Kit Shy, French is cementing a rod anchored in obsidian rock, whose shadow will align with that of the flagpole’s, arcing with the sun the daily progress of solar time in our specific place. Well, at least at the courthouse! “Everyone knows when it’s noon,” French says, illustrating the complexity of time in relation to place, “because that’s when the sun is directly overhead, but that is true only for where you are standing.” French’s tribute, on behalf of the county, to this complexity is now anchored in the summer grass of the courthouse, and will weather and clock all seasons hence forward. The rod also serves as an historical reminder of how difficult and challenging it has been to determine where we are, and when we were there. Lulled to complacency perhaps by GPS monitors, digital watches, and the sure and certain announcements of our smart phones, it is only comparatively recently that our species has been able to feel secure about time and place. “The longitudinal problem—that is, where exactly we are in relationship to the prime meridian in Greenwich, England—was only solved in the late 18th century,” French points out. Wracked by loss of life and merchandise due to ships not certain whether they were closer to Ireland or Newfoundland, the British government posted a version of the 21st century X Prize: the equivalent of several millions of current dollars to the creator of a useable, practical solution to determine longitudinal location at sea. No less than Sir Isaac Newton, who sat on the Board of Longitude, as it was known, thought the problem could never be solved. His and his colleagues’ doubts prevented the author of the 1761 solution, a quiet clock maker by the name of John Harrison, from collecting the prize until 1773, at age 80. “So,” French happily proclaims, “thanks to Harrison, and knowing where the time zone meridian is, and how distant we are from it, we are accurate to one minute and 51 seconds of Mountain Time here in the visible solar time at the courthouse.” He goes on to point out that this little device functions not only as clock, but as calendar and compass as well. “Compass,” he says, “because it is in line with astronomical north at noon, and calendar because it is fixed at summer solstice, a particular day of the year, from which we can measure out all other days.” Of course there are many other variations on time measurement. For example, sidereal time we leave to the stars, readily observable in our Dark Skies International community. That “clock” wobbles roughly four minutes behind the solar time fixed now by the courthouse steps. French has been at this project on his own time, and wants to acknowledge as well that the obsidian rock was donated by Bill Tezak. – W.A. Ewing