The Corpus Clock

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The Corpus Clock

The Corpus Clock is one of the newest and most distinctive public monuments in Cambridge. It is a unique and strange device for the measurement of time and is both hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing. It was invented, designed and given to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, by Dr John C Taylor. The Clock is a remarkable mixture of very modern design and an ancient setting; of precision engineering and engaging whimsy; of utterly traditional clockwork (quite literally) and unexpected electronic invention; of vast size and extreme delicacy of movement; of unceasing life and imminent death; and it tells the time with absolute exactness and breathtaking unpredictability.

The face of the clock is plated in pure gold and is made to resemble radiating ripples, as if a stone had dropped into the middle of a pond of liquid metal. It was created by a series of explosions in a vacuum, pounding the hard metal into shape. The ripples allude to the Big Bang, the central impact which formed the universe and the beginning of time. Above the universe and dominating the clock is an extraordinary monster. Dr John C Taylor uses the word ‘Chronophage’ for this beast, meaning ‘time-eater’, for that is what it seems to be doing, devouring each minute as it passes. 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. Time is shown by concentric orbits of what appear to be flashing blue lights, darting or progressing at different rates around the circumference of the clock face. The Clock shows conventional time as follows. The outer ring represents the seconds; minutes are shown on the middle ring; the innermost ring indicates the hours. On the hour, once an hour, the clock strikes. This happens with a great rush of lights, as bright and fast as a cascade of fireworks. For each stroke of the strike, the lights of the hour ring appear to rush backwards around a full cycle and then forwards again for another cycle.

At least superficially, the Corpus Clock tells absolute time. However, the clock was designed to demonstrate the principle of relative time. Time, as any metaphysician will tell us, means different things in different circumstances. The Clock does the unexpected.

An illustrated booklet on the Corpus Clock by Christopher de Hamel, with photography by Dr John C Taylor, is available from the Porters’ Lodge.

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