By Jeanne van der Merwe

Maybe it was a belated April Fool's joke, or somebody had finger trouble, but Cape Town's faithful noon gun was a good three minutes late on Saturday - and the boffins have no idea why.

In fact, they insisted at first that the watches of thousands of Capetonians must be wrong rather than entertain the thought that the gun could possibly be late.

Generations of Capetonians have set their watches by the daily cannon shot from Signal Hill, but Saturday's late blast had everyone baffled.

The gun is fired automatically by an electronic signal by telephone line from the electronic clock of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town.

Dudley Malgas, who loads the gun, said it was on time and the problem most probably lay with people's watches.

But Jeff Evans, head of electronics at the observatory, said it could easily happen that the gun was fired late.

"The gun is fired via telephone lines from the observatory. If the telephone lines are down, the gun won't fire automatically.

"Also, if there was a power failure at the observatory, there would be no signal and the gun wouldn't go off.

"But we have someone on standby to do it manually if this happens. The signal will also be late if the gun misfires and the operator has to transfer to another gun. But this doesn't take more than a few seconds."

Evans said it was unusual for the gun to fire this late, but he would only be able to ascertain what went wrong after the Easter weekend.