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The Chronophage and a story about John Taylor

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 20 Sep 2008.

Yesterday I went to see the unveiling of the Corpus Clock, also known as the Chronophage, on the outside of the new Taylor Library of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, where I studied. The short unveiling ceremony was led by none other than Professor Stephen Hawking, and has already attracted quite a bit of media attention.

The Chonophage is absolutely astonishing. I can only recommend seeing it yourself, because this video doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s the best I could find so far.

The Chronophage is a beast which eats away time. Dr John Taylor conceived it as a memento mori, a challenging piece of public art, and simultaneously a feat of mechanical engineering. You can read up about the details in the Wikipedia article about the Corpus Clock which I have also been editing; here I just want to make a few personal comments.

Who is John Taylor?

An air of mystery surrounds this clock and John Taylor, who led the design of the clock and funded it. I am sure that after seeing this clock there will be many voices shouting that he is a genius and/or madman, and cast judgements about him – without really knowing who this man actually is.

I have met John Taylor on a few occasions, and still I only know little about him. When I was at Corpus, several of the scholarships I received were funded by his generosity (so I probably speak with a bit of bias in his favour, but also with a bit more insight than the average journalist). From time to time, the college would organise evening socials at which John could meet some of the students he was supporting. These evenings were an opportunity for young people like myself to recognise that our work and life was part of a wider context, with many stories and human personalities involved, not faceless institutions and anonymous pounds sterling but rich and complex backgrounds. We could learn to be grateful.

At one of these dinner parties, I spent a long time talking to John. I don’t recall exactly when that was, but it was probably in my second year in college, about three and a half years ago – he must have already been in the middle of designing the Chronophage. John explained to us how he made his fortune: first by examining the design of electrical connectors in electric kettles and figuring out how he could shave one penny off the production costs by reducing the amount of material, and of course continue selling the result at the same price. One penny times many many electric kettles sold, that already paid off well. He continued to make further improvements in the field of electric kettles, and apparently the cordless kettle (with the round base, onto which you can place the kettle in any angle) is his invention.

You may think electric kettles are a boring subject, but with John Taylor talking about them, you can’t help being fascinated. After all, they are very much part of our day-to-day lives. He talks about tuning the bi-metallic thermostat to achieving a perfect 3-second hard boil in Europe (once the water goes into hard boil, it should take 3 seconds before the thermostat switches off, otherwise the steam causes unwanted condensation in the kitchen); in Asia, it is tuned differently, because the water should be kept on hard boil for close to a minute to ensure germs are killed off. In the UK, electric kettles have been popular for a long time, but they didn’t really catch on in Germany; this was due to the popular opinion amongst traditional Hausfrauen who found the heating element ‘dirty’ when calcium deposits accumulated on it. Taylor figured out that the heating element could be concealed beneath a flat kettle base, making it much easier to clean and descale, and electric kettle sales took off in Germany too.

These stories are about engineering and business only on the surface. Underneath, they are about people. About simple, everyday lives.

I mentioned to John that I was considering the idea of starting a business, and he was pleased. His advice to me was to work for myself, and not become a slave of other people. Don’t borrow money from the banks, otherwise you become the banks’ slave – first make profits, then fund growth out of those profits. He was particularly negative about banks.

John Taylor and Corpus

John is a very humble and retiring person – absolutely not what one would expect of somebody at his level of success. I found it positive and encouraging to see that you could be a successful entrepreneur not by being loud and self-aggrandising, but by quietly figuring out how to improve people’s lives. He is not from a particularly affluent background, he was not even particularly good at university (he graduated with a 2.2, if I remember correctly) and he didn’t expect to change the world. He didn’t choose to work on particularly sexy things; instead he made little improvements to the lowly electric kettle. He doesn’t push himself forward, as far as I know he hasn’t published anything, doesn’t have a personal website or a LinkedIn profile or an article on Wikipedia, and I suspect that before this thing with the Corpus Clock the press had never even heard of him. (A PR company organised the Chronophage unveiling ceremony and surrounding events, and I suspect that it took them a lot of effort to persuade him to appear and speak a few words in public at this occasion; my guess is that he would have much rather just quietly watched from the back.)

The Corpus Clock is just a small part of a grand plan which connects Corpus Christi College and John Taylor. A plan which involves rather a lot of money, but has a very personal level too. I think John loved his college years very dearly, and this has left him with a particular affection for the college. Also, from the theme of the clock it is obvious that mortality is important to him. It must have become clear to him that the right use of his fortune, in the years which remain to him, will involve his old love, the college.

Taylor has been pouring money into the college for several years now; he has contributed an estimated £2.5m towards the new college library, named Taylor Library in his honour; the clock came to about £1m; not to mention numerous undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, travel grants he has sponsored, and probably a lot more which I don’t even know about. His work has been very much behind the scenes, hidden; probably almost every Corpus student in the past 8 years or so has benefited from Taylor’s contributions in some way, but only few have actually met him. He is informally known as the ‘Kettle Man’, but he is rarely talked about, because he never seeks public attention. My housemate Naomi’s PhD is being paid for by him; so were my composition studies 2 years ago. Others benefit from improved facilities and much more, probably unaware of his activity or even taking it for granted. It is almost as though Taylor’s love for the college was a very secret one.

Unfortunately, I think, the college only started requiting Taylor’s affection once he had started giving money and they realised just quite how deep pockets he had, which is sad because it does not seem heartfelt. Institutions like Corpus evoke feelings of fondness amongst many of their old members because of the wonderful community they provide to students. At the same time, they have to function economically, and although Corpus is fortunate to have substantial assets, it still has to watch its cashflow carefully (a lot of the assets are in things like land, buildings, silverware, and port… and I narrowly escape a terrible pun about liquid and illiquid assets here). Funding for academic institutions is always short, and even comparatively well-off colleges or universities cry out for donations and other sources of funding. So it’s not surprising that Corpus was happy to quickly enter into a hot love affair with Taylor’s money, but I sincerely hope that they are in it for the love, not just the money.

For John Taylor, there may be an element of hoping to achieve immortality through becoming one of the college’s top benefactors. However, as I understand it, he sees a lot more depth in this relationship than simply personal gratification. From conversations with fellows of Corpus I gather that there is a kind of long-term ‘master plan’: to support students to realise their full potential, in the hope that like John himself, they will go out into the world to make a difference, which earns them a lot of money, some of which they will then feed back into the college to support the next generation of students. He wants to be the trigger for a continuing cycle of progress and positive change.

Therefore, if we see Taylor’s bust in the Taylor Library, or pay our tuition fees from his money, I don’t believe that he wants us to think “oh, what a wonderful and generous man John Taylor is”. That would completely miss the point. No, what we should be thinking is: “ah, what a good idea he had: I should be grateful and motivated by his support, and when I have developed further a few years down the line, I will remember his gift and will give something back”.

Some personal comments

Of course the entrepreneurial view resonates with me. I believe that a good education is a great starting position to go out into the world, make a difference and do something worthwhile, be it changing people’s lives for the better, or making a fortune, or whatever. Moreover, I too am fond of my old college, mainly because of the wonderful people I met and the profound experiences in which I was allowed to share there. I am grateful of all the college has given me, and it seems quite natural to me that if I was through some bizarre coincidence to become successful and wealthy, I would give something back to the college. Already now I try to return some of the favour by getting involved in some of the college teaching and supervising undergraduate students.

But there are also things I ponder about. Some subjects have more of a tendency to generate money than others. Law, management, science and engineering have a tendency of being good money makers; history, philosophy, arts and humanities are equally important for our culture, identity and society, but they tend not to be rewarded as much in monetary terms. If money is to become an increasingly important driving force in education and academia, we must be very careful that the revenue-weak subjects don’t get neglected.

Although I value competition, incentives and support for those with particular abilities, I strongly believe we must also be careful that the system always remains inclusive. When institutions strongly rely on alumni feeding funds back to their educators, there is a danger of positive feedback loops, which makes some organisations extremely wealthy while others are starved. Judging from historic experience, we often see people from unremarkable backgrounds going forward to do remarkable things, and it would be foolish for a society to prevent such social mobility by creating exclusivity.

I don’t want the UK to end up like the US, where many universities are run very much as businesses, whose professional fundraisers squeeze every available dollar out of their alumni while the university still charges obscene tuition fees to students. Universities should remain places of reflection and wisdom, they should treasure our culture, our understanding of the world and our humanity; the purpose of a business is to make money, but that is not the purpose of a university.

In Europe of the Middle Ages, society took many steps backwards from antique times, and monasteries were pretty much the only places were culture, education and learning lived on. In the renaissance, these values gradually returned to the wider population, forming the basis for the social progress which has brought us to our current high culture.

In the older Cambridge colleges you can still feel a bit of that monastic tradition today, reminding us of the importance to treasure that culture and learning, to keep it as something precious, to be grateful, and at the same time to constantly move forward and progress, deepening our understanding of the world and ourselves.

What’s this got to do with the Corpus Clock?

Which brings us back to the starting point, the Chronophage, now part of the same walls which are the home to both all the precious learning and also all the money matters mentioned above.

It is modern art? That’s right, and it fits in nicely right next to the wonderful building in which I lived for a year, which dates from the 14th Century.

It is expensive? True, but amazing things rarely come free; think of all the artists, craftsmen and engineers who helped to make it happen; think of what it might cost to build a cathedral.

It is an astonishing piece of engineering? Indeed, and I’m delighted that we can still celebrate and marvel at a mechanical device in this age of electronic computers.

It is a piece of history? Yes, it is a tribute to the greatest of clockmakers hundreds of years ago, but it is still novel, it is inspiring, it is built to last, and being a clock, it is also anchored in the present.

It is terrifying and challenging? Absolutely, because no progress is made without challenge.

It reminds us that we’re all going to die? Correct, and more optimistically, it reminds us that we should try to do something good with the time we have before that event.