Timekeeping on a grand scale – the 10,000 Year Clock
By Ben Coxworth
June 22, 2011
When we hear about things being built to last, we usually think in terms of years or decades ... or maybe, centuries. But millennia? Well yes, if you're talking about the 10,000 Year Clock. As its name implies, the 200 foot (61 meter)-tall timepiece is intended to run for 10,000 years, in a remote cave in West Texas. The clock's "century hand" will advance one space every 100 years, although individuals who make the trek to the cave will be able to hear it chime once a day. The whole project is designed to get people thinking in the long term.
Inventor Danny Hillis first came up with the idea for the "Clock of the Long Now" in 1989, and has been working on it ever since. Since that time, construction on a series of tunnels and chambers has been under way in the Sierra Diablo mountain range, in a location that is several hours from the closest airport, and that requires visitors to traverse a rugged trail that rises 2,000 feet (609 meters) above the valley floor.
The final design and engineering of the clock itself is reportedly near completion, with fabrication of the actual full-scale clock parts now in progress. Most of the parts will be made from stainless steel, although all of the bearings will be ceramic. It will be powered by a thermoelectric generator, which will create electricity from the difference in temperature between the sunny outdoors, and the cool interior of the cave. A "solar synchronizer" will allow it to self-adjust, so it keeps accurate time.
Once a day (so the plan goes), the clock's chime generator will create a different sequence of ringing bells. On its one-year anniversary, the clock will run a special orrery, which is a moving mechanical model of the Solar System. Besides the Sun and the planets, it will also include all the space probes launched in the 20th century. That orrery will continue to run once a year, on a yet-to-be-determined date at solar noon.
Special treats are also intended to take place on its ten year, 100 year, 1,000 year, and 10,000 year anniversaries, although Hillis is leaving the last three to future generations - a mechanical interface will be provided for them to implement their ideas. He's open to suggestions for what should happen on its ten-year anniversary, however.
So, is it even remotely possible to build a device that will keep running for ten millennia? It's hard to say, although the project seems to be as much about what it represents, as what the clock will actually be. "As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems," said Jeff Bezos, Hillis' partner in the endeavor. "We're likely to need more long-term thinking."
Much more in the way of details are available on the website of the Long Now Foundation, a group founded by Hillis, that promotes looking at the bigger picture.
The video below shows some of the clock's parts being put through their paces.