Cambridge's Fantastical New 'Corpus Clock' Plays With Time

Fantastical new clock in Cambridge, England, serves as a reminder of mortality.

CAMBRIDGE, England -- Most clocks just tell time. Not the newly unveiled clock at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, which aims to disorient and dazzle, to remind people of their own mortality and to pay tribute to one of the most famous watchmakers of all time.

No wonder it cost more than 1 million pounds (US $1.8 million) to build and drew the attention of famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who planned to formally unveil the masterwork Friday.

This clock blasts away all preconceptions about timepieces. For one thing, it has no hands. And it is specially designed to run in erratic fashion, slowing down and speeding up from time to time.

The "Corpus clock" is the brainchild of inventor John Taylor, who used his own money to build it, in part to pay homage to the genius of John Harrison, the Englishman who in 1725 invented the "grasshopper" escapement— a mechanical device that helps regulate a clock's movement.

Making a visual pun on the grasshopper image, Taylor has designed a fantasy version of a grasshopper at the top of the clock face, and uses this beast — with its long needle teeth and barbed tail — as an integral part of the clockworks.

Its jaws begin to open halfway through a minute, then snap shut at 59 seconds. The oversize grasshopper is called a chronophage, or "time eater."

"Time is gone, he's eaten it," said Taylor. "My object was simply to turn a clock inside out so that the grasshopper became a reality."

The chronophage stands atop the clock face, which is four feet (1.2 meters) in diameter. It displays time with light — a light races around the outer ring once every second, pausing briefly at the actual second. The next ring inside indicates the minute, and the inner ring shows the hour.

The lights are light-emitting diodes, or LEDS, which are constantly on. The apparent motion is regulated mechanically through slots in moving discs.

Weirdly, the pendulum slows down or speeds up. Sometimes it stops, the chronophage shakes a foot, and the pendulum moves again. Because of that, the time display may be as much as a minute off, although it swings back to the correct time every five minutes.

"There are so many expressions in everyday life about time going fast, time going slow and time standing still. Your life is not regular, it's relative to what's going on," Taylor said.

He noted Albert Einstein's observation: "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity."

On Taylor's clock, the hour is tolled not by a bell or a cuckoo, but by the clanking of a chain that falls into a coffin, which then loudly bangs closed.

"I'm in my early 70s," Taylor told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "When you're a young person you think there is plenty of time. The sound was to remind me of my mortality."

The clock is the showpiece of Corpus Christi's new library, also a gift from Taylor. His wealth comes from inventing controls for electric tea kettles, inventions which he estimates are used 1 billion times a day around the globe.

Taylor is intrigued by making the ordinary interesting.

"Clocks are boring. They just tell the time, and people treat them as boring objects," he added. "This clock actually interacts with you."