Interview with John Taylor

The inventor with a penchant for clocks talks KitKat wrappers and kettles

October 26, 2017

John Taylor is an inventor who can take credit for designing the thermostat system that switches a kettle off once the water has boiled and the 360-degree connectors that charge cordless kettles. He studied natural sciences at the University of Cambridge and later started his own company, Strix, which holds four Queen’s Awards. Dr Taylor is an honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and he designed the Corpus Chronophage, a 3m-tall clock on the college’s exterior. He recently donated funding in perpetuity for the university’s first professorship of innovation, which was awarded to Tim Minshall in September.

Where and when were you born?
In the Portland Nursing Home, Buxton, Derbyshire, on 25 November 1936 at 10am. Derbyshire-born, Derbyshire-bred, strong in’t arm, thick in’t head. BBC television was first launched the same month, and it was in the middle of Mrs Simpson and the abdication crisis.

How has this shaped you?
I was blessed by being dyslexic. I can’t spell, but I think in three dimensions.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
You were never thick, lazy or both, as many of your teachers affirmed.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Conformist. I thought it perfectly reasonable that undergraduates should not go on marches and break windows.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Never like Archimedes – but something happened somehow, leading to more than 200 patentable inventions.

Should Joe Bloggs care about your work?
No more than Mrs Bloggs. It’s likely that they both use one of my inventions to make a cup of tea every day.

What is the biggest misconception about your area of work?
That if you make what you think is an important invention, industry will fight to make a path to your door to innovate and provide money to get your idea into a practical form. They will then manufacture millions and pay you a fortune while you watch happily from the sidelines.

Where do you have your best ideas?
When I hear someone stating their problem. I can either solve it in my mind in 10 seconds, or I understand there is a problem.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
John Harrison. As an uneducated carpenter, he took on the task of making a clock that could go to sea when everyone thought this was impossible. He revolutionised navigation, and the same principle is used today in GPS.

What brings you comfort?
Walking round inside the Old Court in Corpus Christi and contentedly thinking nothing has changed in 650 years. Then walking around the outside and seeing a mass of people looking at my Corpus Chronophage and I think: “Well that’s changed the centre of Cambridge!”

What saddens you?
Waste in all its forms. I am forever switching off lights and saving the “silver paper” from KitKats as aluminium is one of the most energy-consuming materials. But what really saddens me is bad design – where form has overtaken function. Such as attractive-looking cutlery with long round handles that win design awards but spin in your fingers and so are useless.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Bringing up two children as a single parent while starting a business manufacturing my inventions of kettle controls. This taught me a new skill – to juggle three apples while riding a bicycle.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I’d try to find sponsorship for a course like engineering that has good employment prospects. If this failed, I would go for an apprenticeship with day release to get a worthwhile qualification.

What keeps you awake at night?
Nocturia or seagulls.

What do you do for fun?
Go for a flight in a glider or walk the dog.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
My motto is “Cogitate Incogitata” – in case you have forgotten your Latin, “Think the Unthinkable”. One of my philosophies came from a Simian proverb often quoted by my father: “What one fool can do, another can.” My grandfather advised: “Never borrow money from banks, they treat a loan like an umbrella; when it rains, they want their umbrella back.” I have carefully followed his advice.

What’s your biggest regret?
My allergy to egg whites. It has stunted my growth and limited my intelligence – just think what I might have achieved if I hadn’t been allergic to eggs.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered as someone who helped inspire inventors to turn their dreams to reality, which is the object of the new professorship of innovation at Cambridge. To some extent, Britain has lost its predominance in innovation, which provides employment and wealth creation for communities. Britain used to be the innovator, where the new things came from, inventions that put the “great” into Great Britain. We had the spinning jenny, Wedgwood china and Watt’s power steam engine. Much of industry has completely disappeared, and it’s a free market that should allow for new creations. We’ve also got to encourage the next generation. So rather than looking at how you get a man on Mars, a type of project that’s incredibly complex and unbelievably difficult, it’s small things like an electric kettle that can change the world.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Sibongile Muthwa has become the first black vice-chancellor and principal of Nelson Mandela University. Dr Muthwa, who is also the institution’s first female leader, has served as the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for institutional support for the past seven years and was unanimously chosen by the council of the Port Elizabeth university, which has seven campuses and 27,000 students, on 13 October. Dr Muthwa was previously the director general of the Eastern Cape provincial government between 2004 and 2010 before joining the university. Hailing her appointment as a “historic…and exceedingly proud moment”, Nelson Mandela’s outgoing vice-chancellor, Derrick Swartz, said that Dr Muthwa would “without doubt…inspire new generations to rise to the highest levels of achievement”.

Lorraine Thomas is the new dean for the Faculty of Education at Newman University in Birmingham. The former secondary school teacher, who was previously the faculty’s associate dean, will lead the department after the retirement of Stephen Rayner last year. “Lorraine comes with a wealth of experience across the broad discipline of educa-tion, and has in-depth knowledge of initial teacher education and continu-ing professional develop-ment,” said Scott Davidson, Newman’s vice-chancellor. “She has already done much to forge new partnerships and to make ITE more sustainable in what have been difficult times,” he continued. 

David Crossman is to become the new chief scientist for health with the Scottish government. He will remain the dean and head of the School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews when he takes up the two-day-a-week post on 1 November.

Adele Moodly has become the first black female registrar in the 113-year history of Rhodes University, in Grahams-town, South Africa.

Kristiina Mäkelä has been chosen as the new provost of Aalto University, in Helsinki, Finland.

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