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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Short History of Corpus Clock in Cambridge

What is Corpus Clock?

Corpus Clock, also known as the grasshopper clock, is a distinctive public monument that was unveiled in 2008 by Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking.

Corpus clock insectoid

Rror, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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Corpus Clock History

Sometimes called the ‘Corpus Chronophage Clock’ (‘Chronophage’ from the Ancient Greek for ‘time-eater'), this iconic timepiece sits on one of Cambridge’s main thoroughfares here on the corner of Trumpington Street. It was gifted to Corpus Christi College in 2008 by its creator, Dr John Taylor, a horologist and alumnus of the college, and can be viewed at all hours of the day and night. Though the clock stands alone as a piece of art, it’s also a symbolic tribute to revolutionary scientific ideas relating to engineering and physics.

The symbolism of the Corpus Clock is fascinating, mysterious, and even slightly frightening. Though it functionally operates as a timepiece, the original decorative elements of the work affirm its simultaneous role as a thing of beauty. The sculpture is formed of a combination of steel, aluminium and silver, and is plated on top with pure 24-carat gold. Its most striking decorative feature is the larger-than-life robotic grasshopper which sits on the dial mechanism. This metallic insect represents the Chronophage (or time-eater). If you watch carefully, you can see how its mouth opens and shuts, which symbolises the consumption of time. The grasshopper is also a secret homage to the Enlightenment clockmaker John Harrison, who invented the ‘grasshopper escapement mechanism’: a type of gear linkage which was revolutionary in terms of mechanical engineering, especially for the art of clockmaking.

The clock face upon which the grasshopper sits is also symbolic. The unique rippling shape of the dial was formed using a special technique, whereby a steel sheet was placed under water at immense, explosive pressure. This formed deep grooves in the metal, which are intended to represent the ripples of energy created by the Big Bang, the start of time itself.

Corpus clock and the Taylor Library

McAnt, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The sculpture is purely mechanical and doesn’t use any computer programming to operate. Very much like a traditional analogue timepiece, the face of the Corpus Clock is circular; however, instead of hands, the contraption uses LED lights which illuminate small holes in the clock face. When these lights align and the clock strikes the hour, it emits the sounds of chains shaking and a hammer hitting a wooden coffin, which are also intended to signify the passage of time, and serve as a sobering reminder of the brevity of life. This point is further underpinned by the Latin inscription beneath the sculpture which reads: ‘the world and its desires pass away’. There’s a second Latin inscription on the pendulum which sits beneath the clock face. This is the signature of the designer, as well as an indication of the year of the clock’s creation, 2008.

The construction of the sculpture took five years, with Taylor donating £1 million to the project. It was built by a team of over 200 people at the local Cambridge engineering company Huxley Bertram, combining a range of engineers, sculptors, jewellery-makers, and of course, horologists. The college is extremely proud of the clock and employs a dedicated custodian to look after it.

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