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 was assigned as Chaplain to the Mother House of the Sisters of Charity.
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. The set became the first public timepiece in Ottawa and the first of its kind in Canada.
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 168th anniversary this year, this modest and unassuming timepiece sits quietly 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 well-deserved “time in the sun.” North America’s second oldest sundial, and the national capital’s first public timepiece, is certainly a unique element of Ottawa’s—and Canada’s—history.