The Chronophage

I’m back home in Los Angeles now, after four days in Cambridge (UK) trying to pay attention to several interesting talks and meetings while being eight hours out of sync with my sleep. It has been interesting, but it is good to be back and getting on with the business of starting the new semester. I gave my first class of the season yesterday (upper division electromagnetism), and it looks to be a good group of students. I expect we’ll have fun! Additionally, two research meetings with graduate students meant for a nicely balanced first day back.

It’s (of course) 5:18am, and so while I sit here, wide awake, I’ll tell you about something I saw earlier in the week. chronophage_corpus_clockWhile wandering around for a bit in Cambridge on Monday, I stumbled across the Corpus Clock and the Chronophage. It’d been mentioned to me about half an hour before by a friend, and I made a mental note to ask about it, but did not realize I’d stumble upon it so easily. Did you hear about it last year? I must confess that all the fuss about it totally passed me by. There’s been a lot of silly stuff said about it, including the usual sensational things about time and so forth, but at the core, the whole thing is quite marvellous. I’ve an old-fashioned streak to me, as you know by now, and so that it is essentially a traditional mechanical clock (despite the presence of LEDs to show the time – they are not controlled electronically, but are on all the time and the mechanical works moves slits to make them appear to go on and off) appeals to me immensely. The whole effect of using modern technology to fabricate the machine, while at the same time have it be essentially a product of eighteenth century time-keeping is marvellous to me. It (and its final look) is very much in the spirit of the visual realizations of Lyra’s Oxford (of Phillip Pullman marvellous books) as presented wonderfully in the film The Golden Compass (which I discussed here). The clock could have emerged straight from that film. The eighteenth century grasshopper escapement (invented by John Harrison) that gets the circular motion ticking along has been dressed up as a time-eating beast that John C. Taylor (the inventor of this clock) calls the Chronophage. It’s one of the main features of the clock, and reflects his (rather pessimistic) view of our relationship to time (it is being greedily eaten away). There are several others, in fact, including the clock’s ability to slow itself down and speed itself up to reflect that fact that we are all familiar with – time’s flow apparently changing depending upon situations, moods, etc. (Note that this is nothing to do with Relativity, despite what you’ll hear.) I made a little video while I stood there to give you the sense of it in place (with a closeup of the beast). It is not great quality – you can get that in the link I give below – but shows you the setting. (It is bit of a pity there’s so much car traffic right next to it, but on the other hand very nice that it is right there on the street and accessible to all as they go by on their business.) Here’s the video:

Later, I found a video on a site at Cambridge with John C. Taylor himself talking about the clock. Also, there’s a nice pair (at time of writing) of Wikipedia articles with reading – one on the clock, and one on grasshopper escapements. Here’s a Guardian article with more about the clock, the background, and the engineering of it, and a nice video of it up to some of its tricks.



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4 Responses to The Chronophage

  1. Kortney says:

    Fascinating modern creation of old clockwork technology! I did not hear of it until now. Thank you for sharing the links and information!
    While watching your video of it, I was thinking how interesting it was that in the reflection of the glass we can see the outline of castle/cathedral type architecture and just as I thought that, you panned the camera around to show the buildings in the area. Good job! Thank you for doing that!

    I like Christopher de Hamel’s description of the Corpus Clock and the Chronophage as “hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing”
    That about sums it up! It should have been fun to see it in person.
    The U of C video of John C Taylor was great to explain his invention. I will enjoy forwarding it to friends and family for their amusements as well.

    Also liked the comment in the Guardian article saying “it should last about 250 years, assuming the world lasts that long”.

    Funny thing to say in reference to a time keeper/eater.

    Thanks for a fun bit of time!

  2. Mary Cole says:

    Thank you for this post! I am ashamed to say that despite living in Cambridge, I have not yet seen the Chronophage, nor had I heard of it before your post. (What was I doing in September to have missed all the hype and publicity?!)I’m rather into unusual and interesting timepieces and also John Harrison is a bit of a hero of mine. I will certainly go and have a proper look when I’m next in town. It looks fascinating! An interesting thought about the passage of time; when we met up at the weekend, (which was lovely!) I was wondering how it was that you seemed to have aged so little since we were undergraduates!

  3. Clifford says:

    You have discovered one of my secrets: I am a chronophage. (Don’t tell anyone.)

    Great to see you and the family – Take them to see the clock!



  4. Ruthie says:

    This is so beautiful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Made me very nostalgic for my time in Cambridge too. Sigh.