Art & Design

Dr John C Taylor

Redefining the perception of time

Dr John C Taylor

Dr John C Taylor : Portrait of a contemporary inventor as an artist

“The perceived duration of each minute varies from person to person and depends on circumstances. As you get older, you become more aware that time isn’t on your side and every minute that passes is gone forever. The Chronophage shows this quite graphically as it relentlessly devours each and every minute.”

Dr John C Taylor

BB Why did you create the Chronophage?

JCT After a successful commercial career, I thought it would be fun to create a clock.

I would say only 1% of people have heard of John Harrison and of those, only 1% would know of the grasshopper escapement. 1% of those who do know of the grasshopper escapement would know how that works.

John Harrison is my hero, so I decided to create a clock with a grasshopper escapement as an homage to him – and as most people don’t know how that works, I decided to make the escapement big and on the outside. After all, I had been using the benefit of Harrison’s creations of bimetal in all my business life and his solving of the navigation problem for my fun flying. *

The Chronophage

The face of The Midsummer Chronophage is a 24 carat gold-plated steel disc 1.5 metres in diameter, polished to resemble a pond of liquid metal with ripples that allude to the Big Bang flowing out from the centre of the Universe. It was created by a series of underwater explosions in a secret military centre in Holland.

The word Chronophage literally means Time-Eater from the Greek: Chronos [Time] and Phago [I eat].

I had a wish to change the popular perception of time and also, the perception that retirement is an inactive time of one’s life.

The prototype half size Chronophage has a 750mm face. Everyone knows a regular analogue or a digital clock but I wanted something new. Another thing I keep in the back of my brain is the idea that anything you can do in a straight line, you can do in a circle and vice versa. I used the calipers invented in the 17th century by the FrenchmanVerier to measure accurately small objects, twisting his concept round into a circle. Behind each hour, minute and second position are fixed continuously illuminated LED lights and a series of fixed and rotating slits. Only when two slits are in line is that particular hour, minute or second illuminated on the dial. It was conceived as a new way of showing time and is a true mechanical clock

Regular clocks are boring. This one stops and starts again which changes it from a dull object into one that demands your attention as it engages with you, makes you think… Surely that’s the definition of art – something that makes you think?

Every five minutes the clock ‘corrects’ itself and accurate time is shown through the light slits. Walking atop the 1.5 metre face of The Midsummer Chronophage is a large kinetic sculpture of a mythical beast. The creature, an integral part of the mechanics of the clock, appears to devour each minute as its jaws snap shut every 59th second . The hour is tolled by the sound of a chain clanking into a small wooden coffin concealed in the back of the clock to remind us that our time on earth is limited.

The Chronophage is four things in one: an innovation, a work of art, a philosophical reflection on the elapse of time and an homage to Harrison.

I donated my first Chronophage to Corpus Christi College of Cambridge because I was an undergraduate there between 1956 and 1959. It is a wonderful place to study and I hope the clock will have an impact on people applying to the college.

Additionally, Cambridge has the oldest court in Britain – anything that is displayed there is going to be there for hundreds of years. I wanted to make the clock of traditional materials that will last hundreds of years, so we used 24 carat plated stainless steel (the time eating creature on the first Chronophage had a vitreous finish – it was enameled). The materials used in my clock will survive 5000 years, never mind a few hundred.

I called my second Chronophage the Midsummer Chronophage because it was unveiled at midsummer. We are discussing with both St Paul’s Cathedral and the Science Museum about displaying it. After that it will be available.

I am hoping that the Midsummer (and the other Chronophage in the series) will be bought by a person or organisation for display in a public space, perhaps by a benefactor, or by a corporation with a public space. People enjoy the concept and challenges of the Chronophage so it would be perfect for it to be on public display.

The Corpus Chronophage has been extremely popular in Cambridge and the Midsummer Chronophage was regarded as one of the best pieces at the Masterpiece Fair when we unveiled it. The price? Just under £2 million – we’ve had up to 100 people working at various stages of the fabrication over a two year period for the Midsummer Chronophage, and the Corpus took over five years but we learned a lot from that.

We intend to make a limited series of 15 in all, but each different in some way.