A special day for the Corpus Clock

‘This is not just a clock that simply tells the time’


Today (25/11) marks a special day for the Corpus Clock because it is the birthday of Dr John C. Taylor OBE.

Dr Taylor is an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College and is the inventor of the clock. The Taylor Library is named after him, and it is not just any old college library.  Inside, the distinctive sound of chains moving and a hammer striking the coffin of the clock can be heard, which serves as a reminder to students of the inevitable passing of time.

Inaugurated by Stephen Hawking in 2008, the clock is fabricated from a single sheet of steel which was formed via explosions in a vacuum and is plated with gold. Dr Taylor discusses on his website that the ripples on the clock face “depict time expanding from the centre of the universe after the Big Bang” and consequently “urge them to contextualise their own existence.”

The Corpus Clock as of today, found on the junction between Trumpington Street and Bene’t Street (Image credit: Patrick Dolan)

Many tourists question the presence of the ‘Chronophage’, the extraordinary grass-hopper looking creature sat on top of the clock; this time eater represents the passing, or ‘eating’, of time and therefore the mortality of human existence. The Chronophage’s mouth snaps shut, its eyes blink and its tail moves as it eats the 59th second of each minute; a daunting reminder that one will simply never be able to get that time back. The creator states that is in homage to John Harrison who notably used a grasshopper escapement in the development of his own clocks.

The Latin inscription that appears underneath of the clock of “mundus transit et concupiscentia eius”, meaning “the world and its desires pass away”, is a further reminder to viewers of the inexorable passage of time.

The Latin inscription (Image credit: Patrick Dolan)

But “this is not just a clock that simply tells the time”, as Prof. Ewan St. John Smith wrote in his email this morning to all Corpus students as the Custodian of the Clock. He points out that “many Cambridge colleges have a clock of sorts”, but it remains that “Corpus is the only one with a timepiece that can wave at its visitors.”

The clock has the ability to play 50 tricks, but what makes today special is it is one of only four days that a particular set of tricks can be seen.

Some of the tricks include the pendulum changing its swinging pattern, the clock slowing down in its movements and the LEDs that tell the time momentarily reversing anti-clockwise. Although the clock can get out of time when performing such tricks, it can quickly realign itself with the ability to run 10 per cent faster or 90 per cent slower than usual.

The placard suggesting the accuracy of the clock every fifth minute (Image credit: Patrick Dolan)

As well as Dr Taylor’s birthday, they can also be witnessed on John Harrison’s birthday (24th March), New Year’s Day and Corpus Christi Day or Corpus Name Day, which celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi 60 days after Easter.

The Corpus Clock is no doubt one of Cambridge’s most famous tourist attractions and today celebrates a special day to pay it a visit as a student, a tourist or a local.

Happy Birthday, Dr John Taylor!

Feature image credit: Patrick Dolan