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Keeping time for eternity

Keeping time for eternity

Friday, 01 October 2010
By Katja Schaer
Katja Schaer

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5 min read

A California-based foundation is working on a clock that will measure time for ten millennia.

Have you ever wondered how humans will live in 10,000 years’ time? What they’ll say about us? What name tomorrow’s citizens will give the era we still call “contemporary”? And if you could leave them a message, tell them about one tiny part of your century, what would that be?

Danny Hillis has his answer: time measurement. This American inventor and computer scientist is working on a one-hundred-century timepiece; a vast mechanical clock that will go on giving the time for the next ten thousand years.

This extraordinary project, known as the 10,000 Year Clock, originated from a simple observation: that we have lost the ability to project ourselves into the future. In an essay on long-term thinking, published in the years before the change of millennium, Danny Hillis wrote: “When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 2000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.”

For this reason, Danny Hillis has teamed up with other prominent names, including the musician Brian Eno and the writer Stewart Brand, in a structure that can objectify long-term thinking. The Long Now Foundation is the frame within which this virtually eternal clock is taking shape.

The system has to be understood by 400 generations to come.
The principles

Danny Hillis and his team have drafted a list of principles which the clock must meet, one of which is longevity. The clock must give time as accurately as possible, even after thousands of years. “This means we must consider the possible consequences of climate change. Melting of the polar ice sheets would influence the rotation of the Earth, hence time and temporal units would no longer be the same,” Danielle Engelman, the Foundation’s spokesperson, explained.

Another principle is that the system has to be understood by 400 generations to come. Better still, these future generations must be able to maintain and even improve the system without the need for advanced tools. The makers of the 10,000 Year Clock have also elected not to use valuable metals so as not to tempt looters, now or in the future.

This gigantic clock is still in the development phase although a smaller version, Prototype 1, is currently on loan to the Science Museum in London. Completed in the late 1990s, it began to tick on December 31st 1999, when it marked
the transition from 01999 to 02000 by chiming twice (this five-digit system is intended to avoid the Y10K problem). More recently, a second prototype was deposited at the headquarters of the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco.

The 10,000 Year Clock, like the prototypes, will show the planets and the stars with their respective positions and movements. One of the dials will display a Gregorian calendar.

Two potential energy sources

Unlike the prototypes, which are powered by falling weights, the monumental clock which Danny Hillis and his colleagues aim to erect will require human intervention in order to function into the far future. “We envisage two sources of power for our clock,” explained the project’s manager, Alexander Rose. “The difference in temperature between day and night will affect the volume of air inside an extensible chamber. This change in volume will lift a weight, which will enable the pendulum and escapement to continue to function. Visitors will also have to wind the clock to adjust the time, as the clock will be displaying the date and time of the last visit.”

To prevent wear, the clock will tick once a minute and strike once a day, but never in the same way. A progressive algorithm is generated through a series of geneva wheels (star-shaped plates down the centre of the mechanism). This algorithm produces a different ringing order – over 3.5 million combinations in all – each of which produces a different melody.

The visibility of the clock is not a prime concern for the project team.

To house its monument-size clock, the Long Now Foundation has purchased a desert site, away from populated areas, on top of Mount Washington in Nevada. Once finished, the gigantic timepiece will be assembled, piece by piece, in underground caverns cut into the limestone: the visibility of the clock is not a prime concern for the project team who chose the desert as a dry, remote site suited to preserving the mechanical construction. The lack of economic value of the site, which can only at present be accessed on foot, thereby limiting the number of visitors, should also help to preserve the clock

A long-sighted view

This extraordinary clock will mark time as it passes and leave its imprint on our era. However, it has greater ambitions. First of all, it urges us to adopt a long-sighted view, and in doing so takes a dig at American culture which seems concerned only with the instantaneous, the temporary, the here and now in its most immediate sense. The 10,000 Year Clock aims to balance this short-horizon culture and be the antithesis of the ephemeral, the symbol of a philosophy of life.

“The physical object is the starting point for a more general reflection,” Danielle Engelman adds. “We want people to realise that the decisions they take today, however insignificant they may seem, will have an influence tomorrow. Long-term thinking adds a new dimension to daily life. Even if we never see this project in its finished form.” By reframing our view of time, inciting us to consider what we leave behind us and embracing continuity, the 10,000 Year Clock can be the key to a new frame of mind, and change our relationship with the rest of the world for generations to come.

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