Corpus Clock: The Cambridge Chronophage

Corpus Clock: The Cambridge Chronophage
The Corpus Clock, also known as the Grasshopper clock or Chronophage, is a unique resident of the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. It was conceived and funded by inventor and entrepreneur John C. Taylor.

 

Officially unveiled to the public on the 19th September 2008 by Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, the Corpus Clock was aptly named one of Time’s Best Inventions of the same year. Today its numberless face continues to create a meal of time for the dreaded mechanical insectile. Its cryptic clicking comes primarily from a disquieting locust escapement, which grinds away the hours as its gaping mouth moves in an effort to live up to its sinister title of “Chronophage”, meaning “time eater” in Greek. The conceptually simple yet mechanically brilliant brainchild of John C. Taylor has become a timeless local gem, in spite of its inaccuracy.

Taylor insists these fallibilities are a more accurate representation of life – the pendulum sometimes sticks or even stops, the LED lights that represent the non-existent hands and numbers tend to lag and then hurry to catch up, and the locust occasionally “blinks” as it devours time in a manner that is intentionally terrifying. Nothing works like clockwork. Interpreting time as a work of public art, not necessarily a precise instrument, the Chronophage is a low-friction mechanism that converts pendulum motion into rotational motion. An homage to John Harrison, the 18th century clockmaker who invented the mechanism, the Corpus Clock is basically a rendition of a traditional mechanical clock turned inside out and exposed to show its inner workings.

Quoting the Vulgate 1 John 2:17, an inscription below the Corpus Clock and its voracious time eater reads “mundus transit et concupiscentia eius” meaning “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof”; meanwhile the Chronophage grinds and clicks away, ravaging seconds we will never recover, towards an end-point that will never arrive. The Chronophage is affectionately known by students as “Hopsy”, or “Rosalind” – a name coined by the college’s Prælector. Hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing, Taylor invested five years and £1 million in the Corpus Clock project, alongside two hundred people including engineers, sculptors, scientists, jewellers, and calligraphers. Time and money well spent.

The clockwork incorporates six new patented inventions. The rippling gold-plated dial was made by explosive forming – using an explosive charge to press a thin sheet of stainless steel onto a mould underwater at a “secret military research institute in Holland.” Stewart Huxley was the design engineer and sculptor Matthew Sanderson modelled the Chronophage. There is also a sister to the Corpus Chronophage known as the Dragon Chronophage, which Taylor installed in the eccentric oval mansion Arragon Mooar House built on the Isle of Man. While Taylor hasn’t always been a fan of art, the art of horology has never failed him:

 

“I was inspired to create the Chronophage because of modern art. I’ve never been a fan of it, so I wanted to create something that was modern art but had a bit more to it. I wanted to find a new way of telling time… the Chronophage is designed to demonstrate the relativity of time. When Albert Einstein tired of explaining his theory of relativity, he would tell people, ‘When you sit on a park bench with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute; but if you sit on a hot stove for a minute it seems like an hour: that’s relativity’… The time is exactly correct every fifth minute to one hundredth of a second. Time is not on your side, it’s rather scary, so with the Corpus Chronophage I changed the cuddly image of a Walt Disney grasshopper into a rather frightening time eater. I thought it would be fun if in a minute he slowly opened his jaws wider and wider, and on the 59th second of every minute he went crunch, got that minute, chewed it up and swallowed it so you could never get it back.”

 

John Crawshaw Taylor OBE FREng (1936) describes himself as a British inventor, entrepreneur, horologist and philanthropist, and is best known for his extensive research into electric kettles. He graduated with a degree in Natural Sciences and had planned to continue his studies further, however at the last moment the funding was pulled and he reluctantly joined his father Eric’s company Otter Controls as a Graduate Trainee. It is said that he “soon revealed himself to have inherited his father’s inventive genius.”

He focused on the business of Castletown Thermostats, a subsidiary of Otter Controls, which started by making bimetallic thermostats for use in various industries. In the 1960s, the market for electric kettles was growing, and Castletown extended its manufacturing plant to produce and test a new device for controlling kettles. In 2001 Taylor received an Honorary Doctorate at UMIST and was made Visiting Professor of Innovation in recognition of over 150 patents in his own name. He was also elected Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Since his retirement in 1999, Taylor has focussed on using his wealth to support educational institutions in the UK, contributing £2.5m towards the construction of a new student library, the Taylor Libray, at his alma mater, as well as funding numerous undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships and bursaries. In 2017, the Royal Academy of Engineering named their newly refurbished Enterprise Hub after Taylor, in recognition of his donation to the project.

He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to business and horology. The second in the series, the Midsummer Chronophage, depicts a science-fiction fly and was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, the London Science Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. Like the Corpus Chronophage, its face is made from 24-carat gold plate on stainless steel. The Dragon Chronophage has been exhibited in Shanghai, and features a Chinese dragon which appears to swallow a pearl every hour. The fourth Chronophage is a private commission, and its details are currently being kept secret at the customer’s request.

When building the Corpus Chronophage, Taylor found that the inertia issues presented by such a large grasshopper escapement made the mechanism unworkable. With reference to this problem, he has said, “We had to turn a disaster into an advantage. Our efforts to prevent the amplitude of the pendulum from increasing led us to the idea of running both fast and slow mechanisms and correcting them.” The final outcome was a mechanical clock that is assisted by mechanical controls and a periodic signal from the atomic clock at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory. All of the Chronophage clocks employ this method of fusing art and science in a way that’s aesthetically and functionally pleasing, and it’s about time – relatively speaking.

 

 

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