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When Britain sent a diplomatic embassy to China in 1793 to negotiate trade terms with the Qianlong Emperor, they were shocked when their scientific gifts were derided as unoriginal and childish.


diptych dial, by Fang Xiu-Shui, Chinese, 19th Century
Image 1: Diptych dial, by Fang Xiu-shui, Xiuning County, China, 19th Century (Wh.0285).

John Barrow, a member of the British mission, blamed its failure on the inability of Qing courtiers to understand the ingenuity of British instruments. He praised the “imitative powers” of the Chinese, but concluded that their “labour does not always appear to be bestowed with judgment.”

Ingenuity or imitation?

The four sundials shown in Images 1–4 question this contrast between Western ingenuity and Eastern imitation. Together, they demonstrate intriguing similarities in design between European and Chinese makers. But who copied whom?

ivory diptych dial, made by Paul Reinmann, 1611
Image 2: Diptych dial, by Paul Reinmann, Nuremberg, Germany, 1611 (Wh.1689).

Here we see what Barrow would expect: a form of Chinese diptych sundial (Image 1) that follows the design of European examples (Image 2) introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries.

astronomical compendium, by Charles Whitwell, English, 1604 [with modern repairs]
Image 3: Astronomical compendium, including equinoctial dial, by Charles Whitwell, London, 1604 (Wh.1733).

But here we have evidence suggesting the reverse exchange.

Equinoctial dials like this type (Image 3, on the left), where the dial plate is adjusted for location by changing its incline angle, only appear in Europe in the late 16th century, whereas Chinese examples (Image 4, below) are known from an earlier date.

pseudo-equinoctial dial, by Fang Xiu-shui, Chinese, 19th Century
Image 4: Pseudo-equinoctial dial, by Fang Xiu-shui, Xiuning County, China, 19th Century (Wh.3188).

Did Western makers copy this design from Chinese dials brought to Europe?

Joshua Nall

Joshua Nall, ‘Copycat sundials?’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2020.

Next Article: Pundits and the Great Game


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