Under a blazing noontime sun, the Mather Sundial was dedicated Oct. 31, 1907 — giving Princeton an instant landmark. “This dial will, I hope, stand here for many ages,” British Ambassador James Bryce said at its dedication. “It will stand here when all of us have been forgotten.”
At Bryce’s side on the sundial steps was University president Woodrow Wilson 1879, who could remember when this had been a potato field. Now, with Wilson’s new preceptorial building just feet away, the school was looking more and more like Oxford.
Suiting Wilson’s dreams for campus, the sundial was thoroughly British — carved from Portland stone, then shipped to America and oriented to the stars by a faculty astronomer. The gift of industrialist Sir William Mather, it precisely copied Charles Turnbull’s Pelican Sundial at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, which dates to Shakespeare’s time. Its 19 dials comprised an ostentatious Renaissance display of mathematical knowledge, as did its inscriptions calculating the length of the year on Mars and other planets — all now weathered by more than 38,000 days outdoors in New Jersey.
Mather Sundial quickly became a Princeton icon, much photographed and filmed, from a 1925 home movie showing students scurrying to class to a 1977 television commercial starring Joe DiMaggio. In a tradition that finally faded away by about 1960, only seniors were allowed to sit on its steps.
In the Vietnam era, Mather Sundial formed the epicenter of many a protest rally and teach-in. Today, it quietly welcomes many a lounging precept.