An introduction to the Corpus Clock

An introduction to the Corpus Clock

The Corpus Clock is one of the most distinctive public monuments in Cambridge and has been admired by residents and tourists since its inauguration in 2008. It is an unusual device for the measurement of time being both hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing. It was invented, designed and given to Corpus Christi College by Dr John C Taylor OBE FREng (m1959), who worked with local engineering company Huxley Bertram in constructing the Clock.

The face of the clock is plated in pure gold and the radiating ripples allude to the Big Bang, the central impact that formed the universe and could be considered as the beginning of time. Sitting atop the clock is an extraordinary monster: the ‘Chronophage’, meaning ‘time-eater’, for that is what the Chronophage does, devouring each minute as it passes with a snap of its jaws. It evolves out of a grasshopper, a term used by eighteenth-century horologist John Harrison to describe his invention of an escapement which was a strictly functional innovation.

The Corpus Clock has no hands or digital numbers and thus at first it appears difficult to tell the time. However, look carefully and there are 3 rings of LEDs, which reading from the innermost ring show hours, minutes and seconds. When an hour is struck there is no chiming of bells, but rather the shaking of chains and a hammer hitting a wooden coffin. Time passes and we all die, a fact further represented by the Latin inscription underneath the clock, mundus transit et concupiscentia eius, meaning ‘the world and its desires pass away’.

A further Latin inscription adorns the pendulum: Joh. Sartor Monan Inv. MMVIII, which translates as follows: Joh. is Johannes, Sartor is the mediaeval Latin for tailor, Monanensis is the Isle of Man, Inv. is invenit, a verb with multiple meanings, e.g. discovered/made/brought to fruition, and lastly MMVIII is the year 2008. Thus, John Taylor, of the Isle of Man, made it, in 2008.

If you wish to learn more about the Corpus Clock a book is available for purchase in the Porters’ Lodge.

Hawking unveils ‘strangest clock’

A Ј1m clock called the “time eater” has been unveiled at Cambridge University by Professor Stephen Hawking.

The author of A Brief History of Time was guest of honour when the unique clock, which has no hands or numbers, was revealed at Corpus Christi College.

Dubbed the strangest clock in the world, it features a giant grasshopper and has 60 slits cut into its face which light up to show the time.

Its creator John Taylor said he “wanted to make timekeeping interesting”.

The Corpus Clock will stand outside the college’s library and will be on view to the public.

Dr Taylor is an inventor and horologist – one who studies the measurement of time – and was a student at Corpus Christi in the 1950s.

He has given the clock as a gift to his former college.

The grasshopper or “chronophage”, meaning “time eater”, advances around the 4ft-wide face, each step marking a second.

Its movement triggers blue flashing lights which travel across the face eventually stopping at the correct hour and minute.

But the clock is only accurate once every five minutes – the rest of the time the lights are simply for decoration.

Dr Taylor, 72, designed the timepiece as a tribute to English clockmaker John Harrison who solved the problem of longitude in the 18th century.

Harrison also invented the grasshopper escapement – a tiny internal device that releases a clock’s gears at each swing of its pendulum.

Dr Taylor told the Daily Mail newspaper he decided “to turn the clock inside out. so you can see the seconds being eaten up”.

“Conventional clocks with hands are boring,” he said. “I wanted to make timekeeping interesting.

“I also wanted to depict that time is a destroyer – once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.

“That’s why my grasshopper is not a Disney character. He is a ferocious beast that over the seconds has his tongue lolling out, his jaws opening, then on the 59th second he gulps down time.”

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The clock has taken five years and a million pounds to construct

The Corpus Clock is wound up by an electric motor which will last for the next 25 years.

It took a team of eight engineers and craftsman five years to mould the 24-carat gold-plated face.

Alan Midleton, curator of the British Horological Institute, said: “It’s a wonderful idea.

“Only time will tell whether it will become as famous as Big Ben – I doubt it, actually.”

Dr Taylor made his fortune developing the kettle thermostat.

Stephen Hawking unveils strange new way to tell the time – a little late

Prof Stephen Hawking, the physicist who tried to explain time, has unveiled one of the world’s most striking clocks – 14 minutes and 55 seconds late.

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

11:07PM BST 19 Sep 2008

The £1 million Corpus Clock has been invented and designed by Dr John Taylor for Corpus Christi College Cambridge for the exterior of the college’s new library building.

It has no hands but displays the time on its four-foot wide face by using a series of lights denoting hours minutes and seconds.

Dr Taylor, a former student at Corpus Christi and now an inventor and horologist, created it as a tribute to John Harrison, the pioneer of longitude, who took 36 years to build one clock and he was still calibrating it when he died at his home in London on March 24, 1776, his 83rd birthday.

The clock was due to be unveiled by Prof Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and author of the global bestseller, A Brief History of Time, at 5.45pm, but in the end the curtain covering it did not fall until 5.59.55pm.

Dr Taylor has put £1 million of his own money and five years into the project. “One of my heroes is John Harrison,” he said.

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Of Harrison’s many innovations, he came up with the ‘grasshopper escapement’, explained Dr Taylor, referring to the device used by Harrison to turn rotational motion into a pendulum motion for timekeeping.

“No one knows how a grasshopper escapement works, so I decided to turn the clock inside out and, instead of making the escape wheel 35 mm across and hidden in the case, it is 1.5 m across and visible with the grasshopper escapement around the outside,” said Dr Taylor.

He calls the new version of the escapement a ‘Chronophage’ (time-eater) – “a fearsome beast which drives the clock, literally “eating away time”.

It is the largest Grasshopper escapement of any clock in the world.

The Chronophage “hypnotises the watcher with its perpetual motion, punctuated by an extraordinary repertoire of slow blinks, jaw-snaps and stings from its tail,” says Dr Taylor.

The Corpus Clock, a true mechanical mechanism, which is wound up by an electric motor, has no hands. “It is a new way to show time, with light,” said Dr Taylor.

The clock has no digital numbers, either, but instead a series of slits cut into the face, each a tenth of a degree across.

Blue LED lights are arranged behind the slits, and 60 quarter inch lenses, so that when the escape wheel moves, a series of rapidly darting lights runs in concentric circles to mark passing seconds, and pause at the correct hour and minute.

What appears to be lights flashing in sequence are actually controlled mechanically, using the same principle as a zoetrope, the old fashioned way to view a moving image through slits. The total wattage used by the clock is less than that of three 60 watt bulbs.

Its massive round face, nearly five feet in diameter, was engineered from a single sheet of stainless steel, the mouldings – like a series of waves rippling outwards – were blasted into place by precisely-controlled explosions under water. On the hour, a chain drops into a wooden coffin hidden behind the clock “to remind us of our mortality,” he said.

The clock also plays tricks on the observer, seeming occasionally to pause, run unevenly and even go backwards. All this is achieved through mechanics rather than computer programming.

Harrison used his clocks as time standards for the marine chronometers he had pioneered to deliver accuracy great enough to allow the determination of longitude at sea.

There have been few significant advances in the mechanical clock since Harrison went against the grain of contemporary thinking by using large pendulum swings, enlarging the pendulum’s “dominion” to reduce errors.

Among Harrison’s many remarkable innovations was the gridiron mechanism, consisting of alternating brass and iron rods assembled so that expansion and contraction rates cancelled each other out as the chronometer moved from the tropics to colder climes.

He was also the inventor of the first caged roller bearing, the father of the ball bearing, in his last clock. Over 100 ball bearings are used in the Corpus clock.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” said Alan Midleton, curator of the British Horological Institute.

“Only time will tell whether it will become as famous as Big Ben – I doubt it, actually.”

The Chronophage

The Chronophage is one of the things I’m most proud of. ‘Chronophage’ is derived from the Ancient Greek words ‘chronos’ and ‘phage’, meaning ‘time-eater’. The creatures that stalk the top of the clocks will continue to eat time for hundreds of years to come, so the majority of the construction is in stainless steel, gold and enamel, chosen for their longevity.

When I returned to Cambridge in 1999, I found the undergraduate library was unchanged since I was a student in 1956. I decided to offer my former college – Corpus Christi – sufficient funds to transform the adjacent bank into a new library. The Corpus Chronophage was created to occupy the old bank’s front door.

We designed the Corpus Chronophage using materials that would last for hundreds of years. The main body is made of stainless steel and gold, both of which will last for a long, long time.

What inspired me to produce the Chronophage? Modern art. The majority of modern art is superficial, there’s nothing to it.

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.

My idea with the Chronophage was to turn the clock inside out, and then make the tiny little escapement and the grasshopper into the biggest gear on the clock. I wanted impact so I made it one and half metres in diameter, with the grasshopper a metre long on the top and its legs were the pallets of the escapement which John Harrison designed. This means you can actually see the grasshopper escapement working.

I tasked myself with creating modern art that actually does something – in this case, a clock that entertains and interacts with the viewer.

Although it is an extremely accurate timepiece, 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 Chronophage Clock’s pendulum slows down, speeds up and even stops, with the time shown by lights racing around the face. The time is exactly correct every fifth minute to one hundredth of a second.

I don’t like to do anything that’s been done before, so it was necessary to find a new way of telling the time.

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.

Since then I’ve designed the Midsummer Chronophage and the Dragon Chronophage. It’s been fascinating too to accept a private commission which is now on display at The Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Chronophage in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Joseph Krol explains the ins-and-outs of the Cambridge attraction that has crowds gathered around in awe

Friday October 26 2018, 12:00am

The Corpus Clock is one of Cambridge’s most unusual sights – not least for the massing tourists who so often block Bene’t Street. Unveiled in 2008, its appearance is at once gaudy, refined, erratic, meticulous – it’s certainly, at any rate, polarising. Built to the design of kettle entrepreneur (and Corpus alumnus) John Taylor, it has now confused passers-by for over a decade.

The ghastly insect that adorns the top of the clock was intended as a tribute to John Harrison, a great clockmaker who revolutionised horology with his introduction of the grasshopper escapement. His work was all done towards the determination of longitude, the east-west coordinate which was effectively impossible to calculate without a precise reading of the time. After decades of being cruelly ignored by much of the scientific establishment, in his old age King George III championed in his work, but much of his work still passed into obscurity.

Escapements form the central mechanism of all traditional clocks. After being wound, the escapement serves to push the pendulum slightly, with each swing moving the clock forward by a fixed amount. Since the pendulum’s swings are necessarily of the same length, no matter how far out the pendulum swings, this period will stay the same, ensuring that the clock keeps good time. Before Harrison, most escapements were fairly crude. His invention, the grasshopper escapement, cut down massively on friction by using two pivoted arms, which give the impression of something creeping round the edge of the clock, hence the name.

It was never often used, being relatively technically involved to produce. While designing his clock, Taylor decided that he wanted to bring back an awareness of clockmaking to the masses, and so incorporated the escapement outside of the clock. As such, the ‘Chronophage’ on the top of the clock forms an integral part of its functioning, moving a shade around the clock through which LEDs shine through, marking the passing of the seconds.

However, the system is quite deliberately imperfect. As guides love to tell tourists, every so often the clock runs deliberately slowly; at other times the pendulum will stop altogether, or even begin to run backwards. It’s only perfectly on time every five minutes; Taylor claimed that in this regard he wanted to reflect life’s inherent irregularity.

He’s very certain, though, on the meaning of the Chronophage, which literally means ‘time-eater’: “I view time as not on your side. He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next.”

The spectacular new clock unveiled in Cambr >The new clock features a striking blue grasshopper

  • 14:40, 21 JUN 2019

A new clock, by the same maker as the famous Corpus Clock, has been officially unveiled at Cambridge’s Lion’s Yard.

The new chronophage clock, which features a striking blue grasshopper at its helm, will be on display until the end of British summertime on October 27, 2019.

It has been launched today to coincide with the summer solstice, the longest day in the year where the sun reaches its highest point in the sky.

Creator Dr John Taylor, 82 said: “I tasked myself with creating modern art that actually does something – in this case, a clock that entertains and interacts with the viewer. I don’t like to do anything that’s been done before, so it was necessary to find a new way of telling the time.

“I pay homage to my hero, the clockmaker John Harrison who won the Longitude Prize in 1714 and who invented the first grasshopper escapement that enabled a navigator to use a clock to find a ship’s position in the middle of the ocean.

“Each Chronophage runs using its own huge grasshopper escapement incorporated into a unique time eating mythical creature that moves across the top of the clockface.”

Like the Corpus clock, which draws thousands of tourists to King’s Parade each week, this sister timepiece is interactive and explores Albert Einstein’s theory of relative time.

Dr Taylor said: “The creature speeds up and slows down, sometimes walking backwards and flashing its eyes, to show how time seems to travel at different speeds depending on what we are doing.”

Every 59 seconds, the creature ‘eats time’ as a reminder of our mortality and that we should make the most of every moment.

Lion Yard centre manager Roger Allen said: “Shopping is one of our favourite pastimes, so the Midsummer Chronophage is well placed.

“Our visitors will be blown away by this masterpiece, which will make them smile. We are just four minutes away from the world-renowned Corpus Chronophage clock, which means visitors to the city can see both clocks in just one short visit.”

Dr Taylor has designed a total of four Chronophages. In addition to the two in the City of Cambridge, there is a Dragon Chronophage that lives in Dr Taylor’s home, Arragon Mooar, in the Isle of Man and another bespoke design that resides abroad with a private art collector.

Others have described it as “hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing”.

Ravenous Clock Runs Backward, Scares Children

Ravenous Clock Runs Backward, Scares Children

Ravenous clock runs backward, scares children. Photo: James Day At first glance, it doesn’t look like a clock. There’s the giant fanged insect on top. And instead of hands, it uses glowing blue LEDs to tell the time. Called the Corpus Clock—it’s installed at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, England—the timepiece was designed by John Taylor, an alumnus, clock collector, and lifelong inventor who wanted to blend 18th-century tech with a hypermodern aesthetic. The bug is called a Chronophage, or time-eater, and it’s actually a scarier version of the grasshopper escapement, a 1720s breakthrough that transformed clock making. But in this case the pendulum-driven heart is wedded to a silicon brain, which lets the device do surprisingly un-clocklike things—slow down, stop, even run backward. “I wanted a clock that would play with you,” Taylor says. How steampunkeriffic.

Dr. John C. Taylor describes the Corpus Clock and the Chronophage. For more, visit ### How It Works

1// Clock face
Five feet across and plated in gold, the face was molded from a single sheet of stainless steel using controlled explosions. The hours, minutes, and seconds are displayed on the three concentric rings. Here it’s 2:49:11.

2// Chronophage
Articulated hinges and weights let the Chronophage rock back and forth to regulate the spring-driven escape wheel, causing it to advance once per second.

3// LEDs
Inside the Corpus Clock are 2,736 LEDs arranged into strips that line up with the apertures in the clock face. These LEDs don’t blink on and off—instead, three independently rotating steel rings, all driven by the escape wheel, block and unblock the LEDs.

4// Pendulum
By marrying a spring’s power to a pendulum’s swing, the Corpus Clock runs on a basic innovation first hit on by Galileo. But the clock’s digital brain plays with the amplitude of the pendulum’s swing, making time appear to stop or even run backward. Then the Chronophage rushes forward to catch up.

10 Years Ago, Stephen Hawking Unveiled a Clockmaker’s Monument to Time

Time, according to a sculpture by John C. Taylor, doesn’t pass. It is devoured.

In 2008, Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who wrote A Brief History of Time, presided over the unveiling of a clockmaker’s monument to time. The Corpus Clock, created by the inventor and horologist John C. Taylor, does not look like a clock. Its shiny gold disk features 60 notches that radiate from its center. Lights race around the edges of the disc, and a spherical pendulum swings slowly beneath it.

The most eye-catching detail is the fierce-looking creature that sits atop the disc. Taylor called it a “chronophage,” from the Greek for time-eater. Like a locust devouring the harvest, the chronophage opens its mouth wide. Time, the sculpture suggests, doesn’t pass. It is devoured.

A crowd surrounds the chronophage in Cambridge, England, immediately after its unveiling by Stephen Hawking in 2008 (via Flickr user Tanya Hart)

Stephen Hawking died early Wednesday in Cambridge, after a long and storied career that advanced our understanding of both time and the universe. He was 79. Today seems a fitting day to consider the unusual sculpture he helped reveal to the world.

Taylor and Hawking at the unveiling of the Corpus Clock (via Flickr user Tanya Hart)

Cambr > Sep 22, 2008 — By Ariel Adams 0 –>

Display of the time is also eccentrically communicated, but in a visually appealing way. You don’t have to investigate long to read the time. There are three circular indicators on the 24k gold plated clock face, with 60 faceted lens each. The inner circle is for hours, then minutes, while the outer circle represents the seconds. The outer circle is the most interesting to watch as the seconds make a complete revolution each second before advancing by one second. This is Taylor’s way of pressing the whole “eating up of time” point. Instead of hands being used to tell the time. The Corpus Clock relies on vertical lens that display light from a centralized LED source. The mechanics of the clock allow for light to access the right lens at the right time so the indicators function like hands. Once you look at the clock in operation, it becomes quite obvious how to use it.

At about four feet in diameter, the clock is an impressive new landmark of Corpus Christi College, and Cambridge University as a whole. The combination of the impressive animations, striking features, and partially external mechanical components on the Corpus Clock easily make it one of the world’s most interesting public clocks. John Taylor is obviously proud of the achievement, and so is Stephen Hawking who presented the clock at its unveiling recently. Professor Stephen Hawking of course, is a faculty member at Cambridge and adds a significant legitimacy to anything he presents, including the clock. If you are in Cambridge, I recommend checking this beast out.

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