Photo Caption: Christopher Colles (b. Dublin 1739, d. New York 1816), oil on canvas, by James Frothingham, 1812-1816
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo Caption: Copper Sundial, by Christopher Colles, New York, inscribed Noli confidere noctum, "Do not trust the night"
Courtesy New-York Historical Society
Christopher Colles was a brilliant yet star-crossed engineer who, despite building the first American steam-engine and the first piped water supply system for New York, never channeled his many scientific accomplishments into a successful business concern. In fairness, his spectacular and well-financed plan for the New York Water Works was thwarted by British occupation of New York in 1776, and, as a relative wrote in 1778, "his water works were almost finished when he flead [sic]."
During the Revolution, he served in the Continental Army as an instructor in the principles of projectiles, and when he returned to New York in 1796, he established a business manufacturing scientific instruments, such as this sundial and a hydrometer now at the Winterthur Museum, and including his many inventions, from mousetraps to fireworks. His contributions to the new Republic included the first comprehensive mapping of roadways in 1789, and building and operating a semaphore telegraph during the War of 1812. He designed a waterway linking the Hudson River and the Great Lakes--a project which would later become the Erie Canal. Colles, an outstanding figure in American scientific history, was arguably New York's Benjamin Franklin. Nonetheless, he died nearly impoverished, and wrote of his own professional misfortune, "Had I been brought up a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads."
The present sundial is one of only four Colles sundials known to survive, and the only example to retain its original iron gnomon. The other three are all in museum collections: the Smithsonian Institution (#306.559), the New-York Historical Society (illustrated here), and Van Cortlandt Manor, Historic Hudson Valley.
Colles's sundials reflect his talents in both mathematics and geography, with the inclusion of an "Equation Table for Regulating Clocks" - an unusual feature for American sundials - and the positioning of reference points for time in international cities. Foreign cities named on sundials often indicate points of particular interest to a region, and the inclusion of Canton on this sundial likely refers to America's opening of direct trade with China for the first time, from New York, in 1784.
For further biography on Colles, see G. Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 2000, pp. 36-49 (for quotations above); M. Fales and R. Raley, "Christopher Colles, Engineer and Architect," Winterthur Newsletter 5 , no. 7, September 1959; K. Jackson, Encyclopedia of New York City, 1995; Grenville Bathe, "Christopher Colles and the Steam Engine," in An Engineer's Miscellany, 1938, pp. 117-129; S. Feld and A. Gardner, American Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965, p. 184; D. Fennimore, Metalwork in Early America, 1996, fig. 187 (the Colles hydrometer), p. 290; and Joseph T. Butler, Sleepy Hollow Restorations: A Cross-Section of the Collection, 1983, fig. 252, p.155 (Colles sundial at Van Cortlandt Manor).