The Devourer of Time: John Harrison, The Grasshopper Escarpment and John Harrison

To counteract the rampant progress in my previous post, I felt that a contrary internet find was in order. I stumbled upon this adorable monstrosity when look for images by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

The beast was unveiled on the nineteenth of September 2008 in Cambridge by Stephen Hawking.

It was created by the inventor John C. Taylor. With two hundred craftspeople and one million pounds of funding, he took five years to construct the Corpus Clock, which features a large gold-plated stainless steel face that was shaped from a single piece of metal using highly accurate underwater explosions in a “secret military research institute in Holland”.

The inscription beneath the clock reads mundus transit et concupiscentia eius “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof”, and above it all is the Chronophage, a demonic grasshopper who eats time minute by minute. The creature serves a double purpose, being a highly decorated “grasshopper escarpment” that helps to regulate the machine, and, on the other hand, it is a jaw-snapping, time-eating symbol of the regular yet random, arbitrary, and ultimately finite nature of life itself.

Yet interestingly enough, the clock’s construction was partly inspired by the work of the English clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776). Harrison developed the first clocks accurate enough to measure time at sea, and thus to determine longitude, perhaps an uninteresting point until one considers the number of ships lost at sea because of navigational errors. Harrison’s story was made into a book and movie some years ago, but what is just as interesting is the story of what happened to some of the first clocks he made to demonstrate his skill. One of them (K2) was on the ill fated HMS Bounty, whose famous mutiny on April 28th 1789 caused such a stir in the British Empire. The clock ended up on the isolated Pitcairn Islands where the mutineers settled (after a brief stop in the Philippines to pick up wives). K2 was only recovered  generations later when a passing sea captain traded some practical goods for the then redundant clock.

More than anything, it seems to me, this fascinating, and macabre tale is the best thread connecting Harrison’s clocks to its most recent, and monstrous child.

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