Portland librarian hopes to shine light on rare sundial’s whereabouts

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PORTLAND — Samantha Duckworth is trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Or, more specifically, an old sundial somewhere in greater Portland.

Duckworth, the science and technology team leader at the Portland Public Library, said the library was contacted by the North American Sundial Society to try and help track down the sundial. The society is having its annual conference in Portland June 23–26, and Duckworth said the NASS wanted to find the dial in time for the conference.

“It’s possible it could be on one of the islands,” Duckworth said, although the search includes Portland, and some surrounding towns like Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth.

Fred Sawyer, NASS president, said the sundial was created by Albert Crehore, who received a patent for his creation in 1905. He said Crehore’s writings listed Portland as a location for one of his dials, but the exact spot is unknown.

“In the United States we don’t have a great history of sundials,” Sawyer said Monday from his home in Connecticut. “Obviously in England they’re all over the place, but you don’t find many in the United States.”

Sawyer said Crehore, who lived from 1868 to 1969, was a fairly prominent scientist and mathematician who held many patents, and only made a few of these particular sundials. Sawyer said what was unusual was that Crehore did not study the theory of sundials, but investigated shadows on the ground as early as high school.

“He developed an entire theory of sundials and developed this type of dial and figured out the advantages of it all on his own,” Sawyer said.

But finding a missing sundial is not the easiest task.

Duckworth, who began the search last August, said she started by speaking with garden societies in the area. Then they began searching the library’s collection and historical records for any mention of the dial. Then she moved on to the Maine Historical Society. Then to real estate agents who may have seen it in a private home. Then to antique appraisers.

Duckworth said she has looked anywhere a unique sundial has been rumored to exist. But so far, no luck.

“What’s really surprising is there’s not more people interested in sundials,” Duckworth said.

Sawyer said sundials like these are usually found in areas like parks, cemeteries, college campuses and libraries. But this one could very likely been in a private home, making it very difficult to find.

“Currently it’s kind of a mystery,” he said.

It also could have changed hands, or been lost if a home was demolished.

“It’s possible the house was razed and no one recognized significance of this sundial,” Duckworth said. “I could be barking down empty roads, but the hope is there.”

Duckworth said one good thing that has come as a result of the search is proof that the work reference librarians do is still relevant today, even if it is “old school” in a way.

“Talking to people and trying to ferret out these things, that maybe the owner of a home looks at every morning, is really cool work,” she said.

In the meantime, the search for the missing sundial continues. And the clock is ticking.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

A search is underway in Portland for a sundial like this one, which was created by Albert Crehore in the early 1900s.

Samantha Duckworth, science and technology team leader at the Portland Public Library, looks through the card catalog in the library for information about a rare sundial believed to be in the city.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.