Clockwork awe

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The awe-inspiring astronomical clock in Prague ©

Nothing is ever new. The astronomical clock in Prague was installed in 1410. By the mid 14th century, mechanical clocks were being mounted in Europe’s leading cities. Burghers and visitors would marvel at the curious but accurate and useful contraption – many in disbelief, most simply in awe. Europeans had conquered time.

In the 21st century of smartwatches and atomic clocks, crowds still gather at the foot of the Old Town Hall in Prague to look at something most don’t fully understand – the complications of an astronomical clock have long become useless, as the modern world no longer needs mechanical devices to keep track of planetary movements or zodiacal dances in the sky. Yet the crowds still marvel. They find it hard to understand what moved 14th-century engineers and their masters to devise such intricate devices. And how could they, anyway, medieval and close-minded as they were?

The crowds still gather, smartphones in the air, to capture a glimpse of the elusive past. A gesture full of longing.

Our sense of awe cannot escape our culture’s tilt towards museification. What used to be the preamble of a prayer to God is now a self-directed interrogation about worlds we know preceded ours but which we no longer understand.

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