Saturday, September 11, 2010

Riding A Paternoster, And Living To Tell The Tale

I am fascinated by a device called a paternoster.

If you're reading this in the United States, you probably don't have the foggiest idea what I'm talking about. That's because paternosters don't exist in the U.S., as far as I know, because they are a lawsuit waiting to happen.

A paternoster is an elevator made up of a series of constantly moving shelves. Passengers don't push a button to call the elevator. They simply wait for the shelf to move even with the floor they're standing on and then step into the paternoster. They then ride the paternoster to the floor they desire, and then simply step off. Being careful to time it right so the entrance to, or exit from, the paternoster is smooth and graceful.

The shelves then continue up -- usually passengerless -- and then change direction in some dark, cobwebby corner of the building, and then continue their journey down. It's an endless loop. (Ostensibly, you can stay on the paternoster while it makes its transition from up to down, but warning signs in bright red urge passengers to disembark.)

It's easy to misjudge the speed of the paternoster and either step on or off too early or too late. If you're elderly or a kid or pushing a baby carriage or just not paying attention, you're toast. Take the stairs.

There are more than 100 paternosters scattered around Eastern and Western Europe and Russia. But their numbers are dwindling due to numerous injuries and, yes, even deaths blamed on paternosters. According to Wikipedia, five people were killed while riding paternosters between 1970 and 1993.

A few days ago, I rode a paternoster in the Pasáž Lucerna -- an old indoor mall, of sorts -- in central Prague. I filmed my ride and put together a little narrated film of my experience.

I hope you enjoy it.


  1. From the Latin, OUR FATHER, who art in Heaven, where I will soon be if I miss my floor........

  2. Exactly! Although it's apparently named after rosary beads, because the paternoster travels in a loop, similar to a rosary.

  3. Many years ago I tested the Paternoster...after many ascensions and the reverse I went 'all the way' and I have to tell you there is nothing like it. I was alone, I had no Virgil to lead me into this peculiar looping hell, but I can assure you the gears do not grind you up...instead you are drawn in a bizarre loop that no elevator in the world can offer...none other than the PATERNOSTER, the LEVIATHAN of human elevation!!

  4. Wow, that thing has a name? I know the exact one you're talking about - it beckons to everyone's inner eight-year-old. Great post!

  5. Thanks, Karen. I'm going to go "all the way" one of these days and film the experience. If I survive.

  6. One of Prague's official buildings (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) has one of those lifts. I got to ride it on one of my last stamp-finding missions of 2009.

    Matti Jyrkinen: "Yes there must be this safety device. But it's not so sensitive that before it stops the paternoster, your arm or your leg can be already broken. So that's the biggest risk. I am 100% sure that a well-maintained paternoster will have these safety equipment in place and they are working, but it's a question of, let's say 1 cm - if it doesn't stop immediately something can be already broken!

  7. Hi Living in the czech republic formore than 10 years has brought me to experience the praternoster more than once, the first experience caused me to duck down in heart palpatating fear as it went through the top loop I was certain that it was going to compress the cab/shelf but thats not what happens. You are unlikely to see this primitive elevator in any country with an agressive tort system as the author points out its not all that difficult to misjudge the speed and timing of getting on and off.

  8. They had these in the UK in the past, I remember one at the University of Essex in the 1980s.

    The fun trick was when new students were being shown around the top floor, to stay on over the top floor, then come down doing a handstand which made them think it flips over.

  9. If (or when) you stay on all that happens is the cabin shifts over to send travel back the other direction from where you came. (However, I really like the poster who suggests doing a handstand. Great idea.)

    Go Orange.

  10. I hate to admit it, but there's a great graphic on the Wikipedia entry on paternosters that shows how the cars revolve. Prety wild. I'm going to go back and ride it all the way around and film it. Stay tuned!

  11. So that's what they're called... There's one in the finance office in Prague 7. Makes me nervous, but I get a tiny kick out of riding it.