The Timewheel (Budapest, Hungary)

Időkerék - The Timewheel
Photo by Ian Rutherford

Most hourglasses are purely decorative, or have over time become toys that somehow offer endless distraction for bored grandchildren. Időkerék, or as it’s known to us English speakers, The Timewheel is something else entirely. Made of granite, steel, and glass, the 60 ton hourglass measures the duration of one trip around the sun rather than a few minutes or hours. The sand slowly flowing from the upper to the lower chamber is made of ground glass, and the complete year it takes to fall makes it one of the largest hourglasses in the world.

Located behind the Palace of Art at the site of a former statue of Communist Party Leader Vladimir Lenin in what is now known as Memento Park, The Timewheel occupies a special place in the capitol city of Hungary. Unveiled on 1 May, 2004 to commemorate the enlargement of the European Union and the admittance of Hungary (along with nine other new EU countries), the kinetic sculpture designed and built by János Herner after the architectural design by István Janáky was promptly declared, though without verification, the largest hourglass in the world.

The slight concave of the giant timepiece gives an impression that nothing more than gravity and careful measurement of sand is responsible for its accuracy, but in reality it is exceedingly more complex. The tiny glass particles viewable through large triangular panes of glass that slowly fall throughout the year are actually regulated with the help of a computerized system to ensure perfect timing. While the computer regulated portion of the sculpture can aide in the proper measurement of time, it cannot work against gravity and move the sand back to the upper chamber once it has all fallen. That work must be done by hand.

Every 31 December, a team of four people rotate The Timewheel 180 degrees using thick steel cables in a process that takes up to 45 minutes. The rotation is not complex work since there are built-in rails on which it can spin, but it in not necessarily easy to reset the chronological artwork. The resetting of The Timewheel has over time become something of an attraction in itself giving visitors to Budapest one more reason to spend some time in the park.