Why is the Corpus Clock Famous?

The Corpus Clock, also known as the Grasshopper Clock, is a unique work of modern art and clockmaking situated in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It was created by the inventor and Corpus Christi alumni, John Taylor.

The bizarre and beguiling timepiece was first put on display in 2008 when Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking led the public unveiling at the university. The clock is intriguing for its meticulous and beautiful design as well as its many disturbing and mind-boggling features.

It was named by Time as one of the best inventions of 2008 and to this day it remains a popular site for all those passing through the area. So what is it about the Corpus Clock that makes it so famous?

We are going to take a close look at this amazing creation and examine its functions, history, and development in detail.

Why is the Corpus Clock famous?

Since its unveiling in 2008, the Corpus Clock has become one of the most visited landmarks in Cambridge by tourists and locals alike. The clock is an intricately designed mechanism that is both a magnificent timepiece and a haunting work of art.

Known for its distinctive Chronophage – time eater – that sits atop the clock in the form of a giant grasshopper swallowing the seconds as they pass, the Corpus Clock has many strange and unsettling features, some of which are only witnessable on particular days.

So let’s jump in and find out what exactly this odd and beguiling timekeeper looks like.

What does the Corpus Clock look like?

When you first lay your eyes upon the Corpus Clock, it is the shimmering 24-carat golden disc that captures your immediate attention. The main body of the clock is made from stainless steel, but it is covered with plates of real gold. Of course, the clock is set behind a protective glass case as it is worth millions of pounds and would be susceptible to vandalism and theft if left unguarded.

The clock face has a diameter of 1.5 metres, which does not include the grasshopper atop it or the swinging pendulum below it. It has no hands or numerals to display the time. Instead, every number is represented by a slit, which lights up using LED lights when it is that time. The slits are arranged in three concentric rings, with each ring denoting hours, minutes, and seconds.

The clock face ripples out from the centre to create separate ridges for the hours, minutes, and seconds. The rippling effect is also an allusion to the Big Bang. The idea being that all of time is rippling out from the central point of the clock.

When the hour is struck, passersby are alerted by the sound of chains hitting a small wooden coffin concealed behind the clock. This is to remind observers that the persistence of time brings each and every one of us one step closer to the grave.

And, of course, the off-centre piece is the Chronophage. The giant grasshopper eats every 30 seconds of time as they pass by with a quick snap of its razor-sharp jaws. The Chronophage also cranks the clock and moves with the entire mechanism as it scrapes its foot to keep the wheel of time in motion.

The grasshopper imagery is a reference to an 18th-century British clockmaker called John Harrison. At one time in history, all clocks had an escapement that checked and released the clock’s gear train to move forward and advance the clock’s hands. Traditionally, this was done using an ‘anchor escapement’. However, Harrison was the first maker to use what he termed ‘the grasshopper’ design as the escapement at the top of the clock, and it later became the most popular escapement design.

The grasshopper invention cut down on the friction created by the escapement by using two arms to move the cogs. Harrison noticed that the two arms gave the impression of a creature treading round the clock, hence the name ‘Grasshopper’.

While the escapement would usually be hidden within the clock, as a homage to Harrison, the grasshopper escapement on the Corpus Clock is one of the main pieces on display. The Corpus Clock’s grasshopper escapement is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world.

The pendulum swings below the clock but does not always swing in rhythm. It is, in fact, deliberately imperfect. Sometimes it will run slowly, stop, or even go backwards. It is, however, exactly right every five minutes. This is to reflect the subjective experience of time as an irregular and unreliable concept.

The pendulum has written upon it: Joh Sartor, Monan, Inv MMVIII. This translates as: John Taylor, Isle of Man, Created 2008. This is the name of the artist, the place of the clock’s invention, and the year it was made.

How does the Corpus Clock work?

The Corpus Clock uses traditional mechanical clockwork. The grasshopper escapement converts the pendulum’s swinging into a rotational motion and also returns the energy to the pendulum needed for it to maintain its swinging. Once it is wound, the escapement pushes the pendulum slightly and each swing turns the clock forward by a fixed amount.

The clock has no computer programming. It uses electricity but only to power a motor that keeps the clock wound and to light the LED lights behind the time slits. Incredibly, the Corpus Clock is expected to run accurately – or as accurately as it was intended – for 200 years.

What else can the Corpus Clock do?

The Corpus Clock has a grand total of 50 tricks. These tricks include lighting up in patterns, reversing time, moving in slow motion, and moving in sped-up motion, amongst many others.

The clock is programmed to perform tricks intermittently, though it has special tricks reserved for John Harrison’s birthday on the 25th of March, John Taylor’s birthday on the 25th of November, New Year’s Day, and, of course, Corpus Christi Day. Corpus Christi Day is celebrated every year on the second Thursday after Pentecost. The celebration is associated with Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion.

The Corpus Clock is also able to self-adjust to British Summer Time and Daylight Saving hours.

Where is the Corpus Clock?

As its name suggests, the Corpus Clock is kept at Corpus Christi College, at the University of Cambridge. It is at street level just outside the Taylor Library, which is one of the college libraries. The clock looks out over a road called King’s Parade in the centre of Cambridge.

The Corpus Clock is just above what used to be the entrance to a Natwest Bank branch. Before that, it was a London County Bank branch, for which the building was built in 1866.

When the Natwest closed in 2005, the college library was expanded to the old building and the original entrance was bricked up. So, instead of leaving the old entrance bare, it was decided that the clock created by Corpus Christi alumnus and inventor John Taylor would be the perfect addition to the space.

Who is John Taylor?

John C. Taylor OBE is the inventor and creator behind the Corpus Clock. As well as being known for his research and innovation in the world of electric kettles, Taylor is also a horologist, which refers to people who study clocks and the measurement of time.

Taylor Graduated from Corpus Christi College Cambridge in the 1950s with a degree in Natural Sciences. As an inventor, engineer, horologist, researcher, and Corpus Christi alumnus, he was deemed the perfect choice to create the Corpus Clock.

Of course, Taylor was not alone in the creation. The Corpus Clock required the minds of many engineers, clockmakers, designers, artists, and scientists to bring it to life. But we have Taylor to thank for the inception and execution of this strange and marvellous machine.