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How Time Flies in Cambridge and Why It Matters

How Time Flies in Cambridge and Why It Matters

I spent the 2022 winter holidays in Cambridge, UK. When we say Cambridge, we Romanians think primarily of the university, the University of Cambridge, although our Romanian mental image of a university is very different from theirs. And the fact that when we hear Cambridge we think most often of Cambridge, the English city on the River Cam, is yet another proof of our Eurocentrism. Why? Because Cambridge, UK [1], is different from Cambridge, MA [2], which is the seat of another great university, that of Harvard University, or Cambridge, Ontario, Canada [3]. For fun or information, there seem to be about fifteen places named Cambridge around the world [4].

Christmas was all around while I was in Cambridge. Even after the most commercial holiday was over. It was difficult therefore not to muse over the passing of time and changing of mores. Over 2000 years have passed since Christ was born: for Christians the most significant spiritual thing to which we constantly refer. In spite of the blatant commercialism that surrounds it nowadays when it is celebrated all over the world even by non-Christians just for the fun of glitzy ornaments and tinsel. When did they pass and, more importantly, how? Libraries, in Cambridge there are so many, are full of possible answers. And, of course, we each have our own perception of personal and historical time. But what I want to write about here is how we can always look at ordinary things from unusual angles. I mean time and how it is measured.

While I was in Cambridge, I have discovered a strange monument dedicated to time in this city where time passes so differently for the university colleges and for the so-called “secular” part of the city, that is the local townspeople. It is the “corpus clock” donated to the Corpus Christi College library by a former graduate, Dr. John Taylor [5]. Corpus Christi College is known as the only one founded by the townspeople of Cambridge in 1352, making it the sixth oldest college in Cambridge [6].

But who is Dr. John Taylor and where did he get the idea of such a clock and, above all, how did he have the financial ability to put it into practice? Dr. John Taylor is a long-time member of the College and a generous donor. He funded a project to catalogue the books in the Parker Library collection, and perhaps his best-known funded project was the one through which he created the Corpus horologe [7].

Why is this horologe or clock, as it is called by everybody, so fascinating, why did it cost what it did (£1.8 million), why was Stephen Hawking present at the clock’s unveiling, why does the world continue to take pictures in front of it, why did even Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth, want to see the clock invented by “the kettle man” [8],... why?

Why the “kettle man”? Because Dr. John C. Taylor made his fortune by inventing a seemingly insignificant item that most users don’t even think about: a switch that connects a cordless electric kettle to its base. Would you have thought that a small switch could make you so rich? Of course, there were other inventions as well, all in the sphere of bimetallic switches used in a wide variety of situations, from cars to household appliances. In the philatelic series dedicated to the inventor and his creations, the Isle of Man Post Office celebrates his most famous inventions, as well as the Corpus clock and his house, Arragon Mooar, which had been built according to his plans and includes special architectural elements [9]. On the first stamp of the series you can admire the Corpus Clock and the Dragon clock.

Philatelic series dedicated to John C. Taylor by the Isle of Man Post Office. 

Coming back to our clock – it is a work that its author wanted to be completely different from an ordinary one, nevertheless to work like a real clock. He achieved this through multiple allusions, an extraordinary refinement of craftsmanship and humour that went into the creation of the horologe. As he often put it himself, he is one of those innovators who wants to look at things from an unusual perspective, so that they are not boring. And this is why he turned the usual, boring clocks inside out. The waves on the clock’s face depict time expanding from the centre of the universe after Big Bang and are probably a way of reminding us of our place in the universe. The clock’s design is a tribute to John Harrison, an 18th-century British clockmaker known for developing marine clocks in which he had used grasshopper escapement to operate them [10]. Dr. John C. Taylor took the idea of the grasshopper and made it much larger and more visible. The grasshopper created by Taylor is a mutant, rather frightening, sitting on top of the clock and has an unpredictable behaviour. The clock is popular with children who are fascinated by the unpredictable behaviour of the creature above the clock. The mutant creature will snap, blink and wag its tail, eating for eternity every 59th second from the end of a minute so we can never get it back. That’s why it’s called the Chronophage – the time eater. A warning for how we irrecoverably waste our time. On the page dedicated to the watch, if you scroll down, there is a three-minute video in which we see how this magnificent project was born.

The clock has no hands. It marks the time with blue LEDs that flash through slits on its face. Time is relative, meaning sometimes it goes faster, sometimes it seems to be slower like in life, but it is corrected every 5 minutes, so the clock is perfectly accurate. And every hour chains can be heard falling into a wooden coffin like box behind the clock’s face. No matter who we are, time passes irreversibly and we end up, sooner or later, in the same place.

At the unveiling of the Corpus clock, Stephen Hawking prompted reflection by asking questions such as: “Why does time only run forward? Does time have a beginning and an end? Can we move sideways in time?”

A true innovator, Dr. John C. Taylor felt the need to create more of his amazing clocks. Based on his belief that it was not the wheel that was the most impactful invention of humanity, but the clock he continued his series of the Chronophage clocks. He considers that the wheel is only a servant of mankind, while clocks, time, control us.

So he came up with three more amazing Chronophage clocks: the Midsummer Chronophage, which itself went through some changes, the Dragon Chronophage, based on Chinese design and done together with Professor Long of the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, and the Secret Chronophage, commissioned by a private client from the USA.

The story of how the Chronophage series came into existence, the impact it had on the public and the places where they are or have been exhibited, and mainly beautiful images of these astounding pieces of art, both of design and of mechanical craftsmanship and inventiveness can be found in the brochure you can read here.

Why did I want to share this story with you readers? Because it shows, at least to me, what creativity and innovation really means. How they cannot really be strategized and encased into policies only on paper if you as an institution and the larger community cannot foster an environment in which passion and constant learning are closely tied, and respect for all type of activities is not genuine. And all this has to happen in a society which is relatively stable and knows that peace and predictability are cornerstones for progress. Time flies indeed everywhere and it also matters how we spend it. Creatively and innovatively or bureaucratically, building boring and unimaginative structures in which people have rather to comply than to create. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.



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