Vol. XXXVII No. 2 — February 1959

The Better to Observe the Time

Robert H. Nisbet, PGM

To Most Worshipful Robert H. Nisbet, past grand master of Masons in Connecticut, we are indebted for most of the ideas in this Short Talk Bulletin.

⁎  ⁎  ⁎

In the days of the cathedral builders a lodge was usually a temporary wooden structure, erected against the southern wall of the edifice, where the operative craftsmen were to do their work. It also served as a tool-house or storage shed, and probably contained lofts in which the workmen enjoyed their noonday rest. Sometimes it was tiled, i.e., covered with tiles, but more generally it had a roof of straw or thatch.

Such a building housed a great deal of rough and practical activity. Stones were cut, trimmed, and squared. Mortar was prepared and borne away. A group of workmen engaged in their tasks was literally a lodge at labor. It was governed by the master or overseer of the work, who was generally a skilled craftsman who had advanced himself to the position that we would call today the building contractor.

To assist him in the superintendence of the workers he had wardens, or deputy overseers, who had been selected or elected because of their skill and qualities of leadership. Their duties were specific and quite practical, although the echoes of their assignments in our ritual sometimes seem strange or romantic to our modern ears.

The speculative junior warden has his position in the South, the better to observe the time. In a medieval workshop, filled with laborers, tools, and the dust and debris of their work, it is exceedingly unlikely that the warden observed a timepiece to announce the arrival of high twelve, the hour of refreshment. Clocks were in existence, but they were complicated bits of machinery used largely for ornamentation on buildings or as expensive pieces of furniture in the castles of the wealthy.

How, then, did the operative junior warden observe the time? It was important that he do so, because the schedule of daily work depended on his observations.

Since the lodge was usually erected against the south wall of the edifice under construction, its east, south, and west walls were capable of fenestration, while the north wall of the lodge would have to be windowless, a place of darkness. A window in the south would permit the rays of the sun to enter the lodge, to make possible simple calculations of the passage of time as measured by a sundial.

One of the supervisors, whose title became the junior warden, had his station “in the South,” where a convenient window permitted the suns parallel rays to enter. At high noon, by “local sun time,” any short staff or column, or even a suspended plumbline, would cast a shadow that pointed due north for that particular location. Even to this day the junior warden has a column and a jewel, the plumb, which is really a piece of string with a weight attached to it. It suggests that his speculative duty is “to observe the time.”

The operative junior warden used his simple column or plumbline to make a sun clock, a technique that is sometimes taught to Boy Scouts even today. He set up a vertical staff or column and tested it by his plumbline to make sure that it was truly vertical. By borrowing a level from the senior warden, he also made sure that his column stood on level ground, so that it would be truly perpendicular.

Sometime in the latter part of the morning he would take a string (the line of his plummet would serve nicely) and make a circle on the floor with the column at its center, with a radius of such length that the shadow cast by the column would just touch the circle. Then by due observation in the early afternoon he would note that moment at which the shadow of the column again just touched the circle he had drawn. By marking this point on the circle he would have two points equidistant from a point to which the shadow of his column would point at high noon, or due north from the column.

Morning and Afternoon Shadow

By making the proper measurements he was able to determine that point of high noon on his circle; and by increasing the height of his column, since the shadow at noon is the shortest of the day, he could be sure that the sun would cast a shadow of sufficient length to tell him when it was high noon on the circle of his simple sun clock.

High Noon Shadow

By further experimentation and measurement he learned that the radius would divide his circle into six equal parts. If he started at the point of high noon and laid off six points on his circle, each a radius length from the last, each of these points would denote a four hours’ lapse of time as the shadow of the sun traveled around a part of the circle. By further bisection, he could determine two and even one hour intervals.

Division of Circle into Six Equal Parts

It is interesting to speculate on the legendary function of Hiram, the widow’s son, who assisted King Solomon in the building of the temple. Although the Bible describes him as “cunning to work all works in brass," Masons have generally regarded him as the chief architect at the building of the temple, whose station in the lodge was “in the South.”

He was also described as “filled with wisdom and understanding.” When he came to King Solomon at the bidding of the King of Tyre, the first accomplishment that he wrought was to “cast two pillars of brass, of eighteen cubits high apiece; and a line of twelve cubits did compass either of them about.” Whatever else he possessed in the way of operative skills, Hiram was a geometrician, as these references to the height and the circumference of the pillars show. His first concern was to erect two permanent plumblines, the pillars known as Boaz and Jachin. The speculative junior warden, therefore, has a legendary precedent for being concerned with plumblines “to observe the time.”

The operative warden could also do a great many things of a practical nature with just his plumbline — or a column or obelisk. No workman’s kit is complete without a plumbline and a level, which is a square and a plumbline combined. To be sure, most workmen in these days have spirit levels and carpenters’ squares, but these instruments may become fallible when they are out of order or damaged. Both can be corrected by a line and proved with a piece of string, like the line in the warden’s plummet.

To prove a square, which in ancient times was two pieces of wood crudely fastened together, or to make an angle of ninety degrees, the operative craftsman simply drew a circle with a diameter through its center. Then he marked off any point on the circumference of the circle (like A in the drawing below) and laid the apex of his square on that point, so that the arms of his instrument would fall along the ends of the diameter of his circle. If the square were absolutely "true,” the arms would exactly touch the two ends of the diameter of the circle. The operative warden was simply demonstrating for very practical purposes the theorem that “any angle inscribed in a semi-circle is a right angle,” but he never troubled himself to write out a Euclidian proof as so many long-suffering high school students have to do in our day.

Proving a Square

In his beautiful and vivid talk, The Mystic Tie, (previously available as a motion picture from The Masonic Service Association) Carl Claudy gives an unforgettable demonstration of how a master once “proved” a square for the workman who was about to undertake his master’s piece.

The operative warden also learned to use his plumbline or column for seasonal observations of the time. When the shadow cast on his sun clock at high noon was the longest of the year, he knew that it was midwinter, since the sun in its annual revolution was now at its farthest point south. It was time for the celebration of St. John the Evangelist Day. On the other hand, when the sun was at its most northerly point at high noon, it cast the shortest shadow of the year; and it was now time to celebrate the feast of St. John the Baptist.

Of course the celebration of religious festivals at the time of the solstices is more ancient than Christianity; but it is easy to see that the lengthening and the shortening of the daylight hours must have been of considerable concern to the ancient builders who depended on daylight, and especially sunlight, for the completion of their tasks. Some scholars tell us that the builders laid the cornerstone of an edifice in the northeast corner because they were working in the northern latitudes, and that in the seasons most favorable for working in stone, the sun rose in that quarter.

It was their knowledge of these geometric and astronomic facts that gave the operative craftsmen their special skill and advantage. These were originally the “secrets” of a Master Mason; for by them he was enabled to “observe the time” and to complete his undertakings “in due season.”

Viewed in the light of the junior warden’s sun clock, columns and pillars take on a more practical function than those we usually associate with their erection. Boaz and Jachin were symbols of Jehovah and His strength. The columns erected by the sons of Lantech were to serve as repositories for recorded knowledge in case of fire or inundation.

But a column is simply a fixed or permanent plumbline! It could and did serve as a faithful warden “to observe the time.” Many of the obelisks of ancient Egypt, we know, were not raised merely for ornamentation or memorials. Egyptian temples were situated with the entrance to the east and with the altar in the western part of the interior. The two granite obelisks at the entrance were so arranged that at the summer solstice the sun cast the shadow of the north pillar on the altar, and at the winter solstice it cast the shadow of the south pillar on the altar. Such obelisks were placed “to observe the time.”

Ancient man feared the possibility of the sun’s wandering from his true course, so that the solstices became unusually important days of propitiation and religious observance. By their knowledge of astronomy and the positions of the sun, the priests were able to foretell and to reassure the populace that “the sun’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” By means of astronomical predictions that developed from their skill in observing the time, the priestly class obtained the tremendous power that it enjoyed in the dawn of civilization.

In the ruins of primitive civilizations in the jungles of Central America we also find that the ancient priests had developed their knowledge of the sun, the stars, and the moon to such a degree, that by celestial computations they could predict eclipses, equinoxes, and other natural phenomena with a high degree of accuracy. By means of stelae and pyramidal temples erected in just the right position, such as those at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, they could depend on the shadows cast by such structures to tell them when the annual events connected with the changing seasons were about to occur.

Even the position of the cubical, the Holy of Holies, in the original Temple of Jehovah, the Tabernacle of Moses, was probably arranged as a link between the earthly and the celestial, for its presumed position suggests that it symbolized the projection of the material world into space, into the Infinite, by intercepting the angle of the sun’s ecliptic with an imaginary column of seven cubes, each having the same size as the cubical. At this, a much higher stage of spiritual development, we find a speculative column being used “to observe the time” by intercepting the sun’s parallel rays at definite and pre-calculated angles. Pythagoras proclaimed that God is always geometrizing. Moses, one of the most highly educated men of ancient times, undoubtedly tried to reach Him by observing the geometry of Nature!

In ancient times “the Sun ruled the day and the Moon governed the night,” because men had to live closer to Nature and the divine order. They were forced to observe the times of the seasons and the ratios of Nature, of which they knew a great deal more than they have usual ly been credited; and the really wise men of that day, the builders and the geometricians, knew much more than we realize about the workings of Nature “in her innermost recesses.” We can marvel, but we should not be incredulous, at the permanent relics they have left of their art and their knowledge in buildings of “order and beauty that reign forever.” They had learned to build well because they had learned “to observe the time.”

For the speculative Mason, therefore, the junior warden’s duty “to observe the time” is no mere fancy or quaint reliquary. It is one of the most ancient skills of the operative craftsman, and from it developed most of the "secrets” by which he labored and prospered.

In the building of the mystical temple of brotherhood, it is important that every Master Mason learn “to observe the time”; for in the erection of that speculative house not made with hands, human relationships and spiritual aspirations are the stuff with which the craftsman builds. Like the preacher of old, he must learn that

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Of such observations of the time is Wisdom made. You are charged, my brethren, to observe the time!

The Masonic Service Association of North America