March 17, 2008

Idea: The Bulbdial Clock

Update 12/4/09: In conjunction with Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, I’m pleased to announce that you can now buy a kit to actually build Bulbdial Clock! Visit the product page for more information.

I think we can all agree that sundials pretty much suck. They only have an hour hand, they don’t work at night or indoors, their accuracy changes with the seasons, and if you happen to live in the Southern hemisphere they run backwards. And yet, we all would love to be able to tell the time by looking at shadows, right?

That’s why I’ve come up with the Bulbdial Clock.

The Bulbdial Clock has no hands — just one pole in the center of the clock, and three light sources of varying heights which revolve around the pole casting shadows. In the model illustrated above, the light sources are each attached to a ring which rotates around the pole. The innermost ring rotates once per minute, casting a “second hand” shadow. The middle ring rotates once per hour, and casts the “minute hand” shadow. And the outer ring rotates once every 12 hours, casting the “little hand” shadow.

The Bulbdial Clock can be used flat like a traditional sundial, or mounted vertically on a wall. A variation on the design intended for large-scale installation (such as in a museum) involves a pole sticking up in the middle of a room, while the light sources are mounted on the ceiling, shining down on the pole as they rotate around it.

The Bulbdial Clock solves most of the sundial’s problems, but it still has a problem of its own: It doesn’t work in bright light. So the Bulbdial Clock is best suited for dim spaces such as restaurants and nightclubs.

Update: Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories has built a working model and posted several photos of the process. (4/7/09)

Previously: An Orange Clockwork


I’d buy it.

Oh, sonofabitch. That is so severely kickass.

In fact, I can think of some tweaks that will help this already-brilliant (HAHAHAHA! idea:

1) Use white LEDS, which last a zillion hours and are very bright.

2) Focus the light so that you concentrate it on the gnomon in the middle.

3) Wrap a ribbon-shaped piece of material a few inches in width around the circumference; this will block some ambient light and make the contrast higher.

This is a completely do-able project. I imagine some home engineer could put this together in a few hours. If you use my ideas, I want some free swag. ;-)

Hey- an idea for an improvement- make the lights in the primary colors. (unfiltered, as per my friend’s suggestion) Then they would be easier to see in bright lights, and be even more cool!

And I’m up for the free swag too.

If you used different-colored lights, they wouldn’t was out the other hands. It would be a little more 70s retro, though…

Dang! He posted in front of me by that much!

Killer idea. Here’s a similar idea on Halfbakery for a wristwatch version.

Cheeses, I’d buy that! And why the hell didn’t I think of it?

If you used three rings of 60 LEDs each, you could just light up one LED in each of the rings, making it so that you could build this without even using any motors.

I think that I could build this in about an hour. :)

Here is an idea for the room sized version. Instead of using lights that move in a circle physically, just have three rings of 60 lights on the ceiling. When not in use as sundial, these lights can be programmed to swirl or display in any way you want.

@ Windell Oskay: Sorry dude, I beat you to that LED clock idea by about 25 years! ;) I actually built a LED clock like you describe, using red LEDs for seconds, yellow LEDs for minutes and green LEDs for hours, driven by cascaded CMOS 4017 decade counter chips clocked by a crystal oscillator circuit. My clock had 60x 3mm red LEDs for seconds; 12x 5mm and 48x 3mm yellow LEDS for minutes, and 12x 5mm green LEDs for hours. And I built that back in 1982 for my parents, when I was 16 years old!

But kudos for creative thinking, mate! If you want, click on my name below to go to my company’s website, go to the “Contact Us” page, send me an email to the address on that page, and I’ll send you the circuit diagram if you want to have a go at building it yourself! ;)

I think this is a great concept. I’d prefer the analogue aspect of 3 rotating lights rather than the ring of 60 some have suggested. For a design like this, form would be more a selling point than function for me, and I’d buy it as-is.

OK. Based on above comments, the idea isn’t new, but it was new to me. What a great idea! I always found reading sundials difficult, but your plan would make it so much simpler.

Stunningly beautiful idea. I too prefer the idea of motorized rings moving the lamps instead of stationary LED’s just for the design aspect of it.

To me different colors don’t add to the design.

I did think about using different colors, incidentally. I thought it would be cool to use Red, Green, and Blue, because it would demonstrate the additive properties of color where they overlap (e.g. it would be white in the middle). But I wondered if the result might just be kind of ugly. -David

I’d buy one. I want to tell time by shadows.

Fantastic idea.

The hour numbers could be illuminated from behind as well. Either way great use as a night light. Also, by placing a simple indicator strip on the opposite side of the light on each ring (a thin one for seconds, medium for minutes, and a thick hour strip respectively) would visually reinforced the “shadow hands” and tell a person in any given lighting condition (which this clock might be affected by) the given time.

And come on any Sun-dial clock worth its weight neeeeds Roman numerals.

@Mystikan: What makes this interesting is the sundial aspect— I certainly wasn’t suggesting building another blinky LED clock. The LEDs that are available now (and were not in 1982) can cast very bright shadows. David’s idea is very, very good, and quite original, so far as I can see.

I like idea! Here’s better: USES FIRE/

That’s a pretty cool design object! Did you animate it, so you can see if it works properly?…

My Dad’s comment: “Yeah, and he can set an alarm by placing, what we used to call an “electric eye”, on a point on the dial. When all the shadows coincide at that point the alarm will sound. Electric eyes work when a light beam is broken.”

This would go beautifully in my bedroom. Make it happen.

But what if you want to set the alarm for, say, 12.15? Then the electric eye doesn’t work, or you’d need a more complicated arrangement.

I’d order one in a heartbeat. That is a very cool idea.

USES FIIIIIRE, I say in a lilting voice.

Oh my, that is absolutely awesome!


More energy wasted burning the planet up.

How about a version that uses 100% renewables (wind/solar/etc)?

Oh boo to the energy wasting part. With LEDs it shouldn’t eat that much power. I’ve have that LED flashlight I use very often. Never had to change the batteries and it’s ultra-bright. I think this is great. Extremely clever.

I’d buy one!

For some reason I can’t find the Buy It Now! button.

Great concept, elegant execution.

LED power requirments are very low compared to traditional light bulbs. As the light only needs to illuminate a surface from a few feet away, with only 3 lights at a time, such a clock could easly be powered by a battery. You could even connect rechargable batteries to a small solar panel if you wanted, might be cool in the garden as a sundial that works at night =)

I love it (and would buy it)!

Another possible addition: add a dimmer, so you can use it in your bedroom and still have relative darkness.

Sign me up for two.

Will it still work in broad day light? If it did, I would definitly buy it! It’s sure to be one of the first things in all the science-cy stores like discovery, and others.

Better idea. Instead of 180 standard LEDs, use 3 super LEDs like your lights there. Only instead of the large mounting posts, mount the LEDs on 3 stacked rings around the edge of the clock. They could be large-ish plastic gears independently driven or appropriately geared together. The only annoying part is having to drive the “hands” from the outside of the clock face instead of the inside, I think.

This is a stunningly beautiful idea, my hats off to you

Really, really WANT!!!

please use LED’s to make it planet friendly.

This would be quite doable to implement. I’m an engineering student and I’d estimate the design process to take around a few hours.

Use a small stepper motor with 3 meshed gear rings for the rings, a few LEDs, a 8-bit microcontroller and that’s about it.

Beautiful, really! So neat. How a sun-dial would work in a complex planet system with three suns, I guess.

And please forget about the silly LED-pushing, “earth-saving” comments - if you think it’s of importance to have an energy-saving clock, you should look for something else. This is not a clock; this is science, design and function neatly put together.

I’d buy one of the two-hands version with dimmable lights, hours and minutes would work just fine for me.

Great work!

If you warp the outside so that the face is like a dinner plate/bowl, you’d block most of the ambient light, and make the display clearer.

Just make sure you focus the light well or the lights are just going to wash out each others’ shadows.

I love it! That’s a lot of moving parts though. I guess you could run a side business fixing them for additional income.

I don’t know if it would do well in bars/clubs, because those typically “bar time”, not “real time”.

That’s cool, is there a wrist watch version for it? I’d buy one. Really.

Very cool concept, I like.

To those who’ve suggest 3 rings of leds, urm, one not just one ring and light up 3 lights on it?? lol.

I’d buy one.

So you need 3 lights to run it? What kind of carbon print are we looking at here?

Has anyone considered that this idea as is wont work… Think about it for a second.
the shadows.

Pretty sweet idea! I’ve always like the idea of a useable sundial!

Where can I buy one of these? Seriously, what a cool idea. I’d gladly drop $50 on one- and I’m a poor student!

Hey, what’s the point?
Here’s an idea!
Use the energy that moves the three lights to run a CLOCK!

Y’all are hung up on time. Make it one ring that casts a really fuzzy shadow. Close enuf fer me- I’ll ignore it anyway.
Horita amigos.

Thanks for the info.

Non-ironically, there’s a clock that does tell time using a shadow. It’s called an annosphere.

Clock as performance art: Replace the center post with George Bush, place McCain on the slow ring, Hillary on the minute hand, and Obama on the second sweep each pushing a hand cart laden with points of light. Let the race begin!

I want one.

This is so good design… Really!
You should win a prize man!

I like the idea!

With three leds (red, green and blue as in the colors of a tv) the colors will mix and give white background and hands in: yellow, magenda and cyan.

Please let me know when these are put on the market, I will buy some for our retail outlet, GREAT idea

It will work just fine as long as the three lights are focused on the gnome without much spill. And of course it’ll tell ‘bar time’. ITS A CLOCK, not a sundial. It just uses shadows as its display method.

Bookmarked! I might try and make this over the summer, after my uni exams and such. I hope that’s ok

In defense of sundials:

1 sundials can indeed be made very accurate (down to 10 seconds). This is not new; there is a very good book published back in 1978 telling how they work and how to make one for most any situation. There is a sundial at the Riverside Library that is quite precise, reads directly and requires only one change per year.

For those needing the time after dark, without adequate windows or in locations with frequent clouds, the Bulbdial with tricolor, focused LEDs, powered by a solar panel and storage battery (WHAT?! You don’t have even a SMALL solar cell?!) will work nicely. Replacing the motors with a quartz clock drive linked by a viscous transmission should satisfy both the power-conscious and the analogues.

For use when the lighting is too bright you could place clock numbers outside the rings, opposite from the “shadow time” so you could tell the time from looking at where the light source was located.

Could you also use a sensor to only turn on the lights when the ambient light was dim enough to allow effective reading of the shadow?

A note to those complaining of energy wasting: your computer monitor uses way more energy than an LED shadow clock would. Depending on the type of monitor, it may even be worse than if he were to use incandescent lights. If you care about the environment that much, shut off your computer.

Cool idea but completely unnecessary.

any progress on this? i would love to help design / build one!

Have you thought about using different colored bulbs for each of the rotating light sources? The shadow created behind the pole of each would be strikingly different from the rest of the area, AND it would produce a constantly changing beautiful array of light as each bulb’s light mixes together. I suggest red, green, and blue of course. Through my concept of the multiple colored lights, the shadows of the pole would always remain the same color as they rotate, but the space in-between would be forever changing.

* Also, this should work in almost all lighting situations except ultra bright ambient because the light sources will be different colors from the ambient light.

(If you don’t get it, just do an experiment in real life with a couple colored lights and something that can cast a shadow—the effect will gorgeous and amazing)

I want it !!!!!!!!!


Killer idea

I’ll take two, please. This is uber awesome. JUST as it is, low light, subtle.

I would definitely buy this. This is a great idea!

What an amazing idea! I would love to see a 2008 approach on that. I was looking for an existing product but could find anything. I want one!!!

And he is a product designer too!

Someone should make up a raytraced animation version as a screen saver — with the different light colors or without.


I would buy one of these in an instant! Sign me up!

Very Creative Idea!! would like to see more

Windel Oskay makes me puke. I tried to spend over $800 dollars at his store. There was a software problem on his end which I notified him about, trying to be nice and help him. NEVER AGAIN!

His electronics may be smart, but his people skills are M0R0NIC! The only thing bigger than his price tags are his ego.

Don’t bother with buying his products, he just might treat you like an enemy if you can’t get an order to go through his broken software.

Unsatisfied, unhappy with the bad treatment, and furious at the self-described “king of the geeks.” He’s not a king of the geeks, even with college courses he cheated on. Genius? No, dis-ingenious? YES (that’s called being a liar).

OK.. I see a lot of people saying “I’d buy one.. but nobody has said “I bought one” or given any idea of if the actually liked it when complete.. SO..
I BOUGHT ONE. Will try to let you know when I receive and build it whether or not I think it’s a good kit/clock/value!