PLAYING FOR TIME
Not content with amassing a world-class collection of historic clocks, inventor Dr. John C. Taylor has reimagined our relationship with time.
In front of Dr. John C. Taylor’s home is a cannon, its 10 foot 6 inch-long barrel aimed, somewhat unsocially, down the driveway. It’s an antique piece, three-anda-half tons in weight, cast in bronze for the Royal French Navy sometime between 1669 and 1683. But it was definitely still in working order on 21 October 1969, when it was test-fired to mark Trafalgar Day.
The cannon, which bears the royal arms of Louis XIV, was a spoil of war, captured by the British at the Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702. It was aboard Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovell’s flagship HMS Association, which was leading 21 ships home from Gibraltar in 1707 when the fleet strayed 100 miles offcourse in stormy seas. The Association was wrecked off the Sicily Isles along with four other vessels, with the loss of nearly 2,000 lives. The tragedy - one of the worst disasters in British Naval History – highlighted the inadequacies of the navigational techniques and instruments of the time. It ultimately led to the British government offering a monetary reward to anyone who could find a simple, practical method of accurately determining a ship’s longitude.
All of this is recounted with admirable precision by Dr. Taylor, who bought the seabed-salvaged cannon at auction four years ago. What he doesn’t explain is why he bought it, although that will become clear later.
For the moment, let me describe the house that the cannon guards. Although it’s only two-story-high, they are towering, and with all its Classical elements – a semi-circular portico over the front door, 25-feet-high fluted columns, triangular pediments – it resembles a postmodern take on a Roman villa. But the oddest thing about the house can only really be appreciated from the air – it’s elliptical in plan.
At the heart of the building is a grand, top-lit, elliptical central hall, off which lie the other rooms (some of which are also elliptical). The house was built to plans drawn up by Dr. Taylor, who wore through six different architects until he found one able to execute his vision to his standards. He also designed the complex balusters of overlapping ellipses on the curving main staircase, the fantastical chandeliers which resemble downward-sprouting beds of colorful flowers (each bloom is an individually programmable LED light), and the curvaceously sculpted plates, dishes, knives, and forks in the kitchen.
The house and nearly everything about it is a self-created testament to the life, career, and obsessions of its 79-year-old owner. It helps, then, to know a little about him. By occupation, he’s an inventor. The son of an inventor too – his father came up with the idea of making windproof, waterproof clothing, as well as the electrically heated flight suits worn by wartime Royal Air Force bomber crews. Taylor Jr. made his own advances in thermostats, particularly the tiny varieties used in domestic appliances, such as the humble kettle. He invented and patented the controls for the cordless kettle, for example, fitted in over one billion kettles to date. In all, he’s filed over 200 inventions and holds 396 patents. He has made himself a wealthy man along the way.
The irony is, of course, that he never wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; what the young Taylor wanted was to be an explorer. As a student at Cambridge, he joined the university’s 1958 expedition to Spitsbergen. “It was the last of the heroic expeditions,” he says, “because we had no radios, no helicopters, no advance dumps, no Skidoos or tractors. We had skis, and we hauled sleds of half a ton.”
He came back after three months’ absolutely loving the Arctic and decided it would be fun to do a Ph.D. in Geology in Antarctica. Unfortunately, the funding for the trip fell through, and instead, he “drifted” into his father’s thermostat company. The taste of adventure found other outlets. Dr. Taylor once piloted himself in a small plane all the way from his home base on the Isle of Man, off the north-west coast of England, to a business meeting in Tokyo. Sixty years after first going solo, he flies between 120 and 150 hours a year in his TBM 850, “The same performance as a Spitfire.” About 15 years ago, he also took up paragliding as an alternative winter sport to skiing, which, as he approached his seventh decade, he felt was perhaps getting a little old for. He joined the Royal Yachting Association to learn how to sail. Both pursuits led to a fascination in how to navigate: “And then being an inventor, you want to know, well, how did it start?” he asked.
One possible starting place is with the quest for the discovery of longitude. Hence the cannon outside the front door. Hence the museum in the basement.
Architects rarely design houses with elliptical rooms. It creates lots of redundant spaces on the floorplan. In Dr. Taylor’s house, it’s in one such dead area that, behind a tall thin door, one finds the most tightly wound stone spiral staircases. It leads down to the basement where, behind secure doors, he displays his remarkable collection.
“What is mankind’s greatest invention,” he asks? Dr. Taylor likes to ask questions of his listeners: “How long does it take the Earth to make one rotation around itself? What’re a million grams? How do you waterproof cotton?” (He is reliably disappointed by my answers.) “No, it is not the wheel,” he says, “it’s the clock.” “The wheel is a servant of Mankind, but the clock makes mankind a servant of time. The clock has changed Mankind completely.”
The clock has undoubtedly had an impact on Dr. Taylor’s life. Set out in a series of coldly lit subterranean rooms are around a hundred antiquarian timepieces. They range in size from giant unencased workings through longcase clocks and carriage clocks to miniature and delicate pocket sizes. Clock-making enjoyed a golden age throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in England, where the expansion of the British Empire and subsequently the importance of maritime exploration were at the heart of popular culture. Most of Dr. Taylor’s clocks belong to this age. They combine technical ingenuity – this was a period when the art of timekeeping was quickly progressing, from clocks with and accuracy that required only an hour hand to measuring minutes – with supreme artistry. More importantly, almost every piece comes with its own story.
“Most people don’t know the difference between a 100-year-old clock and a 200-year-old clock,” he says. “They’re all just old clocks. Boring! But show them a clock with a story, and you’ve got a convert.”
One tale he particularly enjoys is that of John Harrison. Anyone who has ARTS & COLLECTIBLES 68 Private Air Luxury Homes read Dava Sobel’s 1995, best-selling Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time will know the story too. As we’ve already established, in the early 18th-century, the British were determined to solve the issue of how to measure longitude.
The answer lay in always knowing what time it was at a fixed starting point on land, as well as aboard the ship. The difference between the two clock times would then enable mariners to calculate their position, as a one-hour difference in time equals 15 degrees of longitude separation. Time aboard the ship was easy; you just set the onboard clock to noon when the sun was directly overhead. The problem lay in keeping track of the starting-point time, as no clocks existed that could cope with the motion of ships at sea. The problem was eventually solved by John Harrison, an unschooled woodworker who had the genius to invent a pendulum-free clock (which he made from wood) “that would carry the true time from the home port, like an eternal flame, to any remote corner of the world.”
Dr. Taylor naturally owns several original Harrison clocks. His collection isn’t open to the public, but he makes a point of regularly loaning out pieces to museums and universities. For those whose bank balance equals their passion, John C. Taylor Ltd handcrafts replicas of horological masterpieces.
“I’ve spent my life making millions of these tiny little things that sell for under a pound, so I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to make just one thing that sells for a million pounds? And so I thought, well, it should be a clock, I suppose, but how can we make a clock that interesting?”
If you’re visiting the English university city of Cambridge, you can see for yourself Dr. Taylor’s response to his own challenge, on the wall of Corpus Christi College. He calls it a Chronophage, or “Time Eater,” and it’s his homage to the genius of John Harrison. When Harrison developed his “marine chronometer,” which allowed the first accurate calculations of longitude at sea, he introduced a low-friction mechanism for controlling the timepiece that he called the “grasshopper escapement,” after the kicking movement of its parts. Dr. Taylor’s clock, which resembles a giant golden gong, exposes this bit of engineering to public view in the literal form: its escapement takes the form of a sinister metallic grasshopper perched on top. “I turned the clock inside out as an interesting way to demonstrate time.”
There are no clock hands; instead, time is shown through light rotating about the clock face, shining through concentric series of slits and moving at a different speed to denote the passage of hours, minutes, and seconds. On every 59th second, the grasshopper opens its mouth and snaps it shut on the minute. It literally swallows time, devouring a minute that we’ll never get back.
Since its unveiling back in September 2008 (Dr. Taylor’s late friend, Professor Stephen Hawking, did the honors), three companion clocks have been crafted. The second, Midsummer Chronophage, had a demonic wasp squatting on top. It was displayed at the National Museum of Scotland. However, today, it is dissembled in pieces in a workshop. The third, the Dragon Chronophage, was debuted at the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair in September 2012, despite its creator’s conviction that modern art is “crap” (“It is the Emperor’s clothes. It’s kidology, it’s all advertising”). This clock presently hangs above the Escher-like patterned floor of the elliptical grand hall back in the Isle of Man. (All those ellipses, in case you were wondering, are inspired by the Earth’s orbit.) The fourth is a private commission, and the owners quite enjoy anonymity.
Beautiful as it is, something is unsettling about the Chronophage. Perhaps it’s because it was designed by Dr. Taylor as a reminder of his own mortality – and, by extension, the death of all of us. Not that he’s morbid about it: “When you’re in your 70s, time is not on your side. You wake up every morning, and if you can move your elbows, then you know you’re not in a coffin, and you think, I’m still alive!” Most of us, I think, would instead settle for an unobtrusive wall clock. But then none of us is John C. Taylor.