Neophilia, extreme contrariness and an obsessive singularity of vision are important attributes for an inventor. They are typically less prized when it comes to home design. The grandiose, eccentric home of Dr John C Taylor, one of the UK’s most celebrated entrepreneur-inventors, provides some insight into why.
Arragon Mooar on the Isle of Man is an elliptical stone structure, its external curves broken by four convex indentations. On top of its three floors sits a raised domed roof covering a 360-degree internal viewing gallery flanked by a circumferential roof terrace. Red painted window frames, and a grey-green roof contrast with the sand and terracotta colours of the stone walls, which include two pairs of enormous elliptical columns either side of a covered entrance. The sharp colour contrasts and the building’s unconventional shape suggest a military or penitentiary purpose.
Its remote setting — elevated, alone but for its adjacent farmhouse, with a view south-west to the Irish Sea — brings to mind some sort of lookout. As if the architect of the Pentagon had tried his hand at a live-in lighthouse.
“I don’t like to do anything that anyone else has done,” Taylor confides, explaining that he has designed virtually every component of the house and its interior. He ended up in litigation, he says, with the “crooks” he first employed as builders. After seven years in construction — four for the structure, another three for the interiors — and at a cost of more than £20m, Taylor completed the home two years ago, aged 79. Today, he lives alone across its six bedrooms, five reception rooms and four offices: his first marriage ended in the 1970s, his second ended three years ago (he has three children and five grandchildren).
Taylor is nattily dressed — paisley cravat, pale blue blazer, grey trousers and ankle-high boots — and impeccably polite, with a gentle, restrained manner, a wide smile and clear blue eyes. We settle for the interview in his elliptical library. One wall is lined with books on clocks, the other devoted to works on his other hobbies — “mountaineering, sailing, aviation, navigation, Shakespeare”. Tea is served on custom-designed crockery — including elliptical cups, secured from slipping by small indents in the base that fit snugly over a raised knob at the centre of the saucers.
A life of inventing netted Taylor an OBE in 2011 for services to business and horology. It has also earned him a good deal of wealth: Strix — the company he founded and retired from in 1999, which has won four Queen’s Awards for Enterprise — employs 800 people. Besides his house, Taylor has spent a good deal of his money on endowments to Cambridge, his old university — £2.5m for a new library at his old college and the same amount for a university professorship in innovation. With the second gift, Taylor is seeking to promote his inventor entrepreneurship which he believes can help the UK recover its manufacturing base. “Cambridge engineering turns out engineers, whereas I want them also to think they can turn out people who create businesses that will give employment,” he says.
British manufacturing has been hobbled by innovation’s addiction to finance, he believes. “The current mindset about the way you do business is that you have an idea and then you find finance, which then has a greedy hold over the intellectual property.” Silicon Valley tales of good ideas morphing suddenly into billion-dollar valuations only strengthen the belief among graduates “that you go into business to get rich quick, then sell out”.
The problem for actual inventions — rather than software — is that they need to be manufactured. Financiers, keen to extract a profit by cutting costs, typically offshore the process. “The accountants that take over want to make it cheaper, so they go to China.” This is a mistake: since much of the value of an invention is created by working out how best to produce and apply it, retaining control of production is crucial. “I’ve never borrowed a pound off anybody. You have to get something into production then grow the business through your own investment.”
The story of Taylor’s first — and probably finest — invention gives a clue to the root of this conviction. “About my third week of working life” he realised he had to be an inventor. He was 23, freshly graduated from Cambridge and newly arrived at his father’s firm, which manufactured thermostats.
When he established the business shortly after the end of the second world war, his father had hired unemployed Manchester workers who had spent the war building Lancaster bombers. “They came and set up the business with him — he never actually worked there — and organised the company with the Air Registration Board inspection system that they knew.”
While a system based on weeding out faulty parts was well suited to making aeroplanes it was a lousy way to make thermostats, he says. “I could see that just about everything they were doing was wrong.” Intuiting that, despite his family connection, the firm’s management would not react well to being told by a 23-year-old graduate that its business was a shambles, he wracked his brains for an alternative approach.
“The only thing they [couldn’t] do was new products.” Invent one, he reasoned, and he would have control over shaping the production process for it, and with it achieve the much-sought business transformation.
So he settled his energies on redesigning the thermostat required to switch off kettles when they boiled. Previous controls had been a fiddle to install, as the forces associated with heating metal to function as a switch meant that the kettles had to be manually assembled. Taylor’s invention — actually a redesigned version of the existing bi-metal blade component — solved this problem, revolutionising the manufacturing process. It had an extraordinary impact: he estimates there are now 5bn of the gadgets built into kettles and other devices around the globe.
Its suitability as interior ornament is perhaps more questionable. The bi-metal blade shape appears across the house as a recurring design motif — adorning the walls in the huge central atrium, on the building’s external elevations, on the trim of the carpet in the elliptical corridors, on the shirt buttons of Taylor’s bronze bust of himself. It looks like a strangely unfamiliar corporate logo, adding to the impression that one has strayed into the residential retreat of some sinister religious order or the lair of the latest Bond villain.
Taylor beckons me into the atrium, which seems to occupy most of the interior space. It is cavernous, airy — lit from the top by the windows of the 360-degree viewing gallery — and impressive to no obvious purpose. The interior wall is lined with grand elliptical columns interspersed with tall thick wooden doors. I am expecting a clipboard-wielding officiant in a lab coat to enter through one and inform Taylor the warheads are in position. Instead, Dusky, a miniature schnauzer, bounds out of the kitchen, reducing my otherwise restrained host to infantilised coos.
“It may not be to everyone’s taste,” he says, gesturing up at the towering hall. It is clear he doesn’t much care, as he leads me through an unassuming door down a spiral stone staircase and into the home’s half-sunk ground floor.
All decent Bond-villain lairs contain a fortified basement securing some rare and significant collection and Taylor’s does not disappoint.
As the engines whirr on the automatic steel security shutters, winter sun floods in to illuminate dozens of antique clocks, meticulously exhibited across a collection of display cabinets and the interior walls. He won’t tell me how many there are — “clocks are like children, you shouldn’t count them” — or what they are worth.
Once a month he comes down to wind them. It’s a powerful image: the solitary but contented inventor, tinkering with his clocks in a fortified, self-built compound — itself a testament to the isolating power of inventive genius.
Among Taylor’s huge collection of antique clocks, his favourite is the “Selby Lowndes Tompion”, a Full Grand Sonnerie clock made by Thomas Tompion in 1693. “Tompion is the most famous English clockmaker. This one is the pinnacle of English clockmaking design,” he says. It provided a solution to checking the time in the dark, which was then an ordeal requiring flint, steel, spark, tinder and attendant paraphernalia. The solution was to tell the time aurally: pulling the chord at the side chimes the quarter hours followed by a single strike for each hour.
This article has been amended since original publication.
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