Technical fault in Prague’s famous astronomical clock sends apostles on hour-long spin

Photo: CTK

Prague’s famous 15th century astronomical clock, known as Orloj in Czech, is one of the oldest and most elaborate clocks ever built and one of the city’s best known attractions. Few tourists leave Prague without seeing it. However the crowd that assembled to hear it chime last Sunday was in for a shock. Due to a technical error the procession of apostles that appears in the windows above the clock failed to make its usual exit – instead it was spinning like a crazy merry-go-round.

Every hour, on the hour, several dozen tourists assemble under Prague’s famous astronomical clock to watch the procession of apostles. As the clock chimes the hour, Death rings the bell and above the main dial two doors open for the procession of 12 saints – St. Paul and eleven apostles. The wood-carved figures glide past, each turning to look out as they reach the window. When the procession ends, the doors shut, a cock crows and a small bell chimes. At least that is what usually happens. Last Sunday at 6 pm

Photo: CTK
tourists waited in vain for the end of the show as the twelve saints went into a seemingly endless spin and death rung its bell incessantly. As the crowd swelled to watch this unexpected spectacle, the firm Hains which is responsible for the clock’s maintenance, called in the chief-clockmaker to stop the mechanism before more damage was done. Hains’ Mariana Nesnídalová says the she can’t remember anything like this ever happening.

“The procession of apostles makes one round in 30 seconds – so in the hour that this went on they took approximately 120 turns. We’ve never had anything like this happen before. If there’s any problem, it tends to be the exact opposite, with the windows getting stuck and the saints failing to appear.”

Clockmaker Petr Skála, who has been responsible for the clock since 1993, explains what went wrong.

“The fault was caused by a small component in the blocking mechanism that stops the procession after one round. This small chip comes down and blocks further motion but it fell apart due to overuse.”

The clock was back in working order within an hour and the incident received plenty of publicity. There are many legends linked to Prague’s famous 15th century astrological clock. One says that if the clock stops the city will suffer hard times. Another predicts that one of the town councilors will die before the year is out. But the old chronicles provide no explanation for what happened last Sunday. Some commentators suggest that the apostles’ unexpected merry-go-round may have signaled the beginning of a round of celebrations marking the clock’s upcoming 600th anniversary in 2010.