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10 Years Ago, Stephen Hawking Unveiled a Clockmaker’s Monument to Time

Time, according to a sculpture by John C. Taylor, doesn’t pass. It is devoured.

The “Midsummer Chronophage” on view at the National Museum of Scotland (via Flickr user dun_deagh)

In 2008, Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who wrote A Brief History of Time, presided over the unveiling of a clockmaker’s monument to time. The Corpus Clock, created by the inventor and horologist John C. Taylor, does not look like a clock. Its shiny gold disk features 60 notches that radiate from its center. Lights race around the edges of the disc, and a spherical pendulum swings slowly beneath it.

The most eye-catching detail is the fierce-looking creature that sits atop the disc. Taylor called it a “chronophage,” from the Greek for time-eater. Like a locust devouring the harvest, the chronophage opens its mouth wide. Time, the sculpture suggests, doesn’t pass. It is devoured.

A crowd surrounds the chronophage in Cambridge, England, immediately after its unveiling by Stephen Hawking in 2008 (via Flickr user Tanya Hart)

Stephen Hawking died early Wednesday in Cambridge, after a long and storied career that advanced our understanding of both time and the universe. He was 79. Today seems a fitting day to consider the unusual sculpture he helped reveal to the world.

The inside of the Corpus Clock (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Corpus Clock still ticks and tocks in Cambridge, just outside the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College. Despite its precision, the clock speeds up and slows down on a regular schedule, in a nod to a physicist whose theory of relativity laid a foundation for some of Hawking’s work: Albert Einstein. Taylor, who made his fortune as an inventor of electric kettles, spent a million British pounds creating the sculpture. To ensure that it would stand the test of time, he built it from stainless steel, gold, and enamel.

On his website, the inventor explains that he never cared much for modern art, and he built the artwork to mark modernity in his own way. “I wanted to find a new way of telling time,” Taylor writes. “My idea with the Chronophage was to turn the clock inside out, and then make the tiny little escapement and the grasshopper into the biggest gear on the clock.”

Ordinary clocks emphasize the cyclical nature of time. The hands, moving in a circle, always make it back to the same place. They seem to suggest that if we lose track of time today, we’ll always have tomorrow. This, of course, is only partly true. As the chronophage reminds us, we can never regain lost time. “Time is a destroyer,” Taylor said in 2008. “Once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.”

Taylor and Hawking at the unveiling of the Corpus Clock (via Flickr user Tanya Hart)

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