Monday, 22 September 2008

Behold, the Chronophage...

'They call it the time eater. With every snap of its fearsome jaws, sting of the tail and release of the claws, it devours another second.

An extraordinary new type of clock was unveiled at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge by Professor Stephen Hawking - even if it was 14 minutes and 55 seconds late.

This gold-encrusted monster - part grasshopper and part locust - advancing around the golden disc to measure the passage of time cost over £1million to make and seven years to build.

... [Inventor John Taylor] calls the new version of the escapement a 'Chronophage' which means time eater.

The inventor added: 'Instead of being hidden away inside the clock, the mechanism becomes external and enlarged, and is transformed into a Chronophage - a fearsome beast which drives the clock, literally eating away time.

'Conventional clocks with hands are boring. I wanted to make timekeeping interesting. I also wanted to depict that time is a destroyer- once a minute is gone you can't get it back. That's why my grasshopper is not a Disney character. He is a ferocious beast that over the seconds has his tongue lolling out, his jaws opening then on the 59th second he gulps down time.'

Another quirky feature is the eerie sound of a chain dropping into a wooden coffin hidden behind the clock on the hour, which is intended to be a reminder of human mortality.

The clock does not use hands or digital numerals. By a complex feat of engineering, its movement triggers blue flashing lights that dart across the clockface. What appears to be lights flashing in sequence are actually controlled mechanically, using the same principle as a zoetrope, the old fashioned way to view a moving image through slits. The total wattage used by the clock is less than that of three 60 watt bulbs.

The timepiece is completely accurate only every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum pauses then corrects itself as if by magic. The blue lights play optical illusions on the eye, whirring around the disc one second, then appearing to freeze the next. The effect is hypnotic.

The clock, which has been described by the college's librarian Dr Christopher de Hamel as 'both hypnotically beautiful and deeply disturbing', has now been donated to the college where it will hang outside the new Taylor library named after the inventor.'

Dr de Hamel: "I wanted it to be a monster, because time itself is a monster... It is horrendous, and horrible, and beautiful. It reminds me of the locusts from the Book of Revelation. It lashes its tongue, and flicks its eyes at you. It’s bonkers."

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'"It is terrifying, it is meant to be," said John Taylor. "Basically I view time as not on your side. He'll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he's salivating for the next. It's not a bad thing to remind students of. I never felt like this until I woke up on my 70th birthday, and was stricken at the thought of how much I still wanted to do, and how little time remained."

...Taylor regularly flew over in his own plane from his home in Castletown, on the Isle of Man to keep an eye as beady as his creature's on the work.

...Engineer Stewart Huxley [of Huxley Bertram Engineering at Cottenham] refuses to reveal the secret of its tricks, which include the pendulum occasionally apparently catching and stopping for a heartbeat, and then swinging faster to catch up.

Taylor invested five years and £1million in the project, which involved two hundred engineers, sculptors, scientists, jewellers and calligraphers. The rippling gold-plated dial was made by exploding a thin sheet of stainless steel onto a mould underwater: none of the team actually saw it happen because the only place in the world which could make it was a secret military research institute in Holland.

...The creature, modelled by [Cambridge-based] sculptor Matthew Sanderson, was inspired by medieval armour and gradually became more ominous: part-lizard, part-stag beetle, a Chronophage – time eater.'

John Taylor: [The Chronophage] 'hypnotises the watcher with its perpetual motion, punctuated by an extraordinary repertoire of slow blinks, jaw-snaps and stings from its tail.'

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'At the unveiling, Hawking predicted the creature atop the clock would become "a much-loved, and possibly feared, addition to Cambridge's cityscape."

He said: "I have been particularly concerned with time. Why does time go forward? Does time have a beginning and an end? Can one go sideways in time? Some of the answers are given in my book, A Brief History of Time.

"One of the challenges has been to measure the passage of time accurately. Dr John Taylor's invention is a true mechanical spring-driven clock, but it also uses modern technology, high-precision engineering, and high-quality craftsmanship to considerable effect."

1 comment:

Anadæ said...

Truly exquisite. Guillermo del Toro, Mexican fantasy film director extraordinaire, whose next cinematic project is slated to bring JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" to the screen (his "Pan's Labyrinth" wasn't too shoddy, either, nor were "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" and "The Orphanage") would probably go into an ecstatic trance upon seeing this.

Much of del Toro's fascination comes from mechanical gadgetry as well as the insect kingdom. Culling from the muse of the Argentine Magical Realist writer, Jorge Luis Borges, whose 1957 tome, "Manual de zoología fantástica" (Handbook of Fantastic Zoology) later known as "Book of Imaginary Beings", it's my humble opinion that some of del Toro's inspiration for his 1993 film, "Cronos", came from there. Be it known that the mock-up for the pocket watch sized Cronos device upon which the movie's title is based, a timepiece that confers its user immortality but at a profound cost, was actually the size of ... wait for it ... a Volkswagen Beetle.

Nice going, Ben. I cannot wait to hear more of your own in person account of what Cambridge's Corpus Christi College's latest acquisition struck you as. And thank you Alfredo, for beginning this whole route of transmission here.

Not only do I detect that the Chronophage's head markedly resembles that of the coelacanth, but her hind legs, emphatically longer than its swelled (pregnant?) abdomen, are those of the camel cricket. The latter beast is renowned here in the Colonies as fond of basements, as its original abode was deep within caves. Gorgeous creation, that.