The Prague Astronomical Clock - A Time Mystery

How Old Is the Astronomical Clock in Prague?

One View of the Astronomical Clock in Prague, Czech Republic
Astronomical Clock in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Judith Knight/EyeEm Collection/Getty Images (crop)

Tick tock, what's the oldest clock?

The idea of decorating buildings with a timepiece goes back a long way, says Dr. Jiøí (Jiri) Podolský, from Charles University in Prague. The square, lion-flanked tower in Padua, Italy was built in 1344. The original Strasbourg clock, with angels, hour glasses, and crowing roosters, was built in 1354. But, if you're looking for a highly ornamental, astronomical clock with its original workings intact, Dr. Podolský says this: Go to Prague.

Prague: Home to the Astronomical Clock

Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, is a crazy quilt of architectural styles. Gothic cathedrals soar over Romanesque churches. Art Nouveau facades nestle alongside Cubist buildings. And, in every part of the city are clock towers.

The oldest and most celebrated clock is on the side wall of the Old Town Hall in Old Town Square. With glittering hands and a complex series of filigreed wheels, this ornamental timepiece doesn't merely mark the hours of a 24-hour day. Symbols of the zodiac tell the course of the heavens. When the bell tolls, windows fly open and mechanical apostles, skeletons, and "sinners" begin a ritualistic dance of destiny.

The irony of the Prague Astronomical Clock is that for all its mastery at keeping time, it is nearly impossible to place in time.

Chronology of the Prague Clock

Dr. Podolský believes the original clock tower in Prague was built in about 1410.

The original tower was no doubt modeled after ecclesiastical bell towers that were sweeping the continent's architecture. The complexity of gears would have been very high-technology back in the early 15th century.  It was a simple, unadorned structure back then, and the clock showed only astronomical data.

Later, in 1490, the tower facade was decorated with flamboyant Gothic sculptures and a golden astronomical dial.

Then, in the 1600s, came the mechanical figure of Death, leering and tolling the great bell.

The mid-1800s brought still more additions—wooden carvings of the twelve apostles and a calendar disk with astrological signs. Today's clock is thought to be the only one on earth to keep sidereal time in addition to our regular time—that's the difference between a sidereal and lunar month.

Stories About Prague's Clock

Everything in Prague has a story, and so it is with the Old Town clock. Natives claim that when the mechanical figures were created, town officials had the clockmaker blinded so that he would never duplicate his masterpiece.

In vengeance, the blind man climbed the tower and stopped his creation. The clock remained silent for more than fifty years. Centuries later, during dreary decades of communist domination, the legend of the blinded clockmaker became a metaphor for thwarted creativity. At least that's the way the story goes.

When Clocks Become Architecture

Why do we turn timepieces into architectural monuments?

Perhaps, as Dr. Podolský suggests, builders of early clock towers wanted to show their respect for the heavenly order.

Or, perhaps the idea runs even deeper. Was there ever an era when humans didn't build great structures to mark the passage of time?

Just look at the ancient Stonehenge in Great Britain. Now that's an old clock!

Source: "Prague Astronomical Clock" © J.Podolsky, 30 Dec 1997, at http://utf.mff.cuni.cz/mac/Relativity/orloj.htm [accessed November 23, 2003]