The Polar Project » Solar Alchemy

The Holzer Polar Sundial, by artist Steve Holzer

Day 20; February 11, 2009; Vesleskaervet, Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica
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Several days before I left Marfa to start my journey here to Antarctica my good friend Steve Holzer and I found ourselves in a conversation about sundials. I had remarked that the sundial up at the McDonald Observatory was, ironically, inaccurate for most of the year, as it didn’t account for daylight savings time. Steve, a true renaissance man, has spent a lot of time between the worlds of art and science and is, himself, both artist and inventor. Steve, it turned out, had designed a sundial back in 1982 which would work regardless of daylight savings (or other factors)—it would even work at the North or South Pole. The dial, he said, while never tested in a Polar environment, would be accurate even during the time in the year when the sun goes around the horizon 24-hours a day. Quickly, we realized the potential, and immediately decided he should make one for me to take to Antarctica.

I have always had a fascination with sundials, being the tool by which one marks the distinct and measurable relationship between the earth’s rotation around our sun. It seems possible that, only through some alchemy, the sun could be forged into time. Thus, sundials for me summon a time in antiquity when the sciences, then termed natural philosophy (which is not science as it is defined today) and astronomy were imbued with a deep sense of enchantment for the natural world. In light of this, I was thrilled to interject this solar-conjured time device into the ICEPAC mission—an artistic, scientific and environmentally sustainable object, which intrinsically met the vision of ITASC to be completely wind and solar operated in the field.

With very little time to spare given my imminent departure, Steve set about constructing a sundial that was constrained by several serious limitations. First, it had to be extremely portable because I had strict weight restrictions for my flight to Antarctica. It also had to be very durable to accommodate the catabatic winds on the ice field where it would be installed. Steve also made the sundial to be specific to the exact coordinates of the base, so that it was literally site-specific.

The Holzer Polar Dial arrived at my door the day before my departure. About the dial, Steve writes:

It is an equatorial dial, with line AB parallel to the equator and the plane of the dial plates at right angles to the equator. The dial plates are numbered with the hours of daylight. For this installation, I have made a dial that will read all twenty-four hours of potential daylight in the southern latitudes. The Gnomon casts a shadow on the dial plate and the Sun’s shadow travels through the hours. At the hours of twelve (both a.m. and p.m.) and six (a.m. and p.m.), the Sun’s shadow can be read on the dial plate that the shadow is leaving as well as the dial plate that the shadow is beginning to travel through.

I have oriented the dial to be parallel to the equator by establishing the co-latitude, which is found by subtracting the local latitude from 90°. The co-latitude for the SANAE Research Base location, 71° South, is 19°. (90° – 71°) = 19°. This orients the 8″ x 8″ equatorial plate parallel to the equator with the dial plates at right angles to the equator.

Pointing the north mark of the equatorial plate at the pole star, or in this case (Southern Hemisphere) with a compass to north, aligns the dial to read Solar Time, Local Mean Time. For the sake of this installation, we shall set the dial by pointing it appropriately north and setting the dial with a clock set to Greenwich Mean Time. As the location is at 2° of longitude west, which equates to about 6 minutes, it is accurate enough for general observation of the hours of sunlight.

I happily squeezed the gorgeous object into my bag, and thus, the story of its fantastic journey began…

When I checked into my flight to Boston, where I’d be for two days before flying on to Cape Town, I was told by the airline that my bag was overweight and that I would be charged additionally for my excess baggage. This wasn’t a problem for my flight to Boston, but it was a huge problem for my flight to Antarctica—because the scale was telling me I was over my limit by more than twenty pounds. So, when I got to Boston, I necessarily purchased a much smaller, lighter duffle bag, and ran around getting various parts for cameras that were made of lighter metals or were more compact styles. Finally, when repacking my bags, I had to leave out books, clothing, and sadly, the Holzer Polar Dial, which literally would not fit into my new bag.

I was completely devastated, and I knew Steve would be also. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t bring myself to explain to him why it could not go with me—and it would be days before I realized why I felt I should wait to tell him.

About two days after my arrival in Cape Town, Thomas and I were zipping around doing one errand or another, and I mentioned the Holzer Polar Dial, and having sadly abandoned it in Boston. Thomas realized instantly how great it would be to have the sundial at ICEPAC with us, and said he thought there might be a way to get it shipped to us in Antarctica if we acted quickly. So, I rushed to phone my father, who was just about to leave for work, and asked him to Fedex the sundial to me in Cape Town via International Priority delivery. My father grabbed the dial, packed and shipped it right away, and off it went to South Africa.

At that time, we knew we would be delayed flying to Antarctica by at least one day due to bad weather, and there was the possibility of it being delayed further. Thus, there was at least a slim chance that the sundial would get to Cape Town in time to make it on the plane with us. In the end, however, the skies in Antarctica cleared earlier than anticipated, and we made our flight to Antarctica before the sundial had arrived. The sundial finally arrived four days later to Bobby de Beer’s warehouse in Cape Town, with Thomas and I already at SANAE base in Antarctica.

Seeing that it had arrived via internet tracking, we had scheduled with the base’s radio room to make a phone call in order to complete the arrangements for the sundial to be shipped to us. Thomas had already confirmed with ALCI, the company we flew to Antarctica with, that they would be happy to bring the sundial on the next flight to the continent, which was leaving the following day, February 9th, and then would put it on the feeder flight that was coming on the 10th to pick up Alfons. This was a rather big deal, as the costs are normally huge to get packages on these infrequent flights to the southern ice cap.

Lorna de Beer answered the phone at the warehouse, where the sundial was awaiting its next leg of the journey, and she was gracious enough to agree to deliver the package to ALCI the same day so it would be sure to make the flight. The package was driven from the warehouse to the ALCI offices, and then brought to the airport, loaded onto the Ilyushin 75-TD and flown to NOVO Station in Antarctica. From NOVO, it was transferred to the feeder flight, which came directly to SANAE.

Yesterday, when I met the plane out on the northern ice field that dropped the package and then picked up Alfons, it was handed to me from the aircraft still in its Fedex box appearing to those around me that I was receiving a Fedex in Antarctica. (If only!) The dial arrived mostly intact, with only one piece of the fiberglass broken. Luckily, the carpenters at the workshop at the base were kind enough to assist me in fashioning a suitable replacement, and quickly Steve’s Polar Dial was operational, and, at long last, in Antarctica!

We brought it straight away to ICEPAC, and while I was leveling it and directing its marker northward, I yelled to Thomas across the windy evening “what time is it?” to check if I had positioned it properly. “7pm” he replied. I looked down at the sundial, and the shadow from the evening sun was already marking the 7 line on the dial. Perfect. The sundial glistened in the Antarctic sunlight, casting its remarkable shadow onto the fiercely blowing snow.

I have arranged for the sundial to remain at SANAE for the next 12 months, in the capable hands of Lötter Kock, who is the SANAE 48 overwintering Team Leader. He will reset the dial closer to the base, and send pictures and video clips of it throughout the year during the sunlit months. Stay tuned for a Holzer Polar Dial page on my blog, which will host updates from SANAE. For additional information about Steve or the Holzer Polar Dial you can also check out his website:

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2 Responses to Solar Alchemy

  1. pyramids have stood forever, would that shape hold up and work at the poles? I think every one that can work and live in extreme climates are the bravest souls. Thank you

  2. Daeryl & Steve says:

    It is a real thrill to have the Polar Dial installed at SANAE. The story of it’s rather incredible and fortuitous journey to Antarctica with the help of so many, friends and friends I have not yet met, is a high point in my own exploration of this “Natural Philosophy”.

    I want to express my thanks and deepest gratitude to all those who helped it along the way and those who have welcomed the Dial to SANAE.

    Thank You All,
    Steve Holzer

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