The Incredible 500-foot High Clock Inside A Mountain

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The Long Now foundation’s clock built inside a Texan mountain will keep deep time for 10,000 years.

In the past year Jeff Bezos – CEO and founder of online retailer Amazon – has launched the Amazon CloudPlay music service, bought the Washington Post newspaper, and revealed bizarre publicity-grabbing plans to deliver packages via Amazon PrimeAir drones.

What most people don’t know, however, is that the technology entrepreneur and investor is also involved in a philanthropic venture to build an enormous clock deep in a mountain in Texas, capable of marking time accurately for the next 10,000 years.

Now under construction after going through several prototypes and designs, the 10,000 Year Clock is being funded by the San Francisco-based Long Now Foundation, an organisation established in 1996 to provide a counterpoint to the ‘accelerating culture’ and short-term thinking that dominates modern society. The Long Now Foundation wants us to think about the future and ask the question: what will the world be like in ten millennia when the 10,000 Year Clock is still ticking?

Whether the clock will last that long is anyone’s guess, but it will get a good start; as well as using money from Bezos, the 500-foot high 10,000 Year Clock will also be built inside a mountain on his land in the Sierra Diablo mountain range of West Texas, near the town of Van Horn.

The Long Now Foundation is on a mission to encourage longer-term thinkingRolfe Horn & The Long Now Foundation

The Long Now Foundation is on a mission to encourage longer-term thinking

Time and motion
“Every part of the clock – like the pendulum and bearings – we’ve tested for 10,000 years of motion,” said computer scientist Danny Hillis, the inventor of the clock, at a January 2014 seminar entitled The Long Now, Now at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. “Unless someone comes and destroys it, it will last for 10,000 years and still have the correct time.” To account for its expected lifespan the 10,000 Year Clock shows the Gregorian year in five digits, so 2014 is shown as 02014. It will be protected by a series of steel doors, one of which is an airlock.

But why is the 10,000 Year Clock it important? Building a clock that can keep the correct time for ten millennia is no small feat. While they’re counting out the 86,400 seconds in each day most clocks and watches lose time; even a 99.9% accurate timepiece is out by 90 seconds in a single day.

The 10,000 Year Clock – the initial prototype of which is on display at the Science Museum in London – is about ‘deep time’. A completely mechanical clock powered by the Sun, that uses stainless steel, titanium and dry running ceramic ball bearings, it achieves a precision equal to one day in 20,000 years thanks to a specially designed (and enormous) system of gears and cogs. It “displays the natural cycles of astronomical time, the pace of the stars and the planets, and the galactic time of the Earth’s procession”, it ticks once a year, has a ‘century hand’ that moves every 100 years, and houses a cuckoo that comes out at the millennium. It’s being built by Hillis’ company Applied Minds.

The clock will tick once each year, but chime every noonRolfe Horn & The Long Now Foundation

The clock will tick once each year, but chime every noon

Accurate and reliable
Maintainable using simple bronze-age technology (just in case the future is more primitive than the present), it self-corrects by phase-locking to the noon Sun – and that’s an ideal time to visit. “The clock plays chimes at noon, so if you climb up to the mountain and go inside it you will hear a sequence of ten bells,” says Hillis, who developed the ‘massive parallel’ architecture found in today’s supercomputers.
Hillis also came up with the algorithm to realise the ambitions of the co-conspirator at the Long Now Foundation, British musician, producer and artist Brian Eno, who is best known for his pioneering of experimental ambient music. “We’re talking about 10,000 years and I realised that if you had 10 bells there were about the same number of permutations of ten bells as there are days in 10,000 years – it’s 3,628,800 permutations of ten bells,” says Eno, a Long Now board member who named the organisation and co-designed the chimes for the clock. “Every single day in the 10,000 years will have it’s own unique sound.”

Each chime will be a unique combination of 10 bellsRolfe Horn & The Long Now Foundation

Each chime will be a unique combination of 10 bells

Piece of time
The 10,000 Year Clock is meant to be iconic – a symbol and legacy of our age and civilisation – so public visits will be very much encouraged. While there is no completion date scheduled, the Long Now Foundation does plan to open it to the public once it’s ready, and though the facility in West Texas is purposely far away from civilisation (the nearest airport is several hours drive, and the tough trail rises to almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor to gain access), there’s something special awaiting visitors.
“If you go to the trouble of going out to the desert and you climb up the mountain and  through the tunnels and up the spiral staircase and past the machinery and up into the clock chamber at noon,” says Hillis, “when the sun goes overhead at noon the light will shine into the clock chamber and it will adjust itself for noon, and the chimes will come on.”

Getting to the mountain home of the clock won't be easyRolfe Horn & The Long Now Foundation

Getting to the mountain home of the clock won’t be easy

For the record
For all its impressive technical time-keeping, the question has to be asked: what is the 10,000 Year Clock for? Essentially, it’s about being good ancestors. “When I first heard about the clock my first thought was: why would you go to all the trouble to build a thing like that? It’s a very complicated problem to try to imagine something that’s going to last for 10,000 years and all the things that could happen to the world in that time,” says Eno, who’s since decided that it’s important to overcome all the difficulties of construction to make it real.
“It’s supposed to be that mythic, metaphorical presence, something that would make you think differently,” he says, comparing it how NASA’s first pictures of the whole Earth taken from space in the 1960s changed the way people think about the planet and each other. “The way we think about the clock is possibly more as a work of art than a functioning machine, though it is – or will be – a functioning machine.”

Will the 10,000 Year Clock make it to the end?Rolfe Horn & The Long Now Foundation

Will the 10,000 Year Clock make it to the end?

Documenting history
“The interesting thing about the time-frame is that you really can’t imagine it,” says Hillis. “There are a few standard imaginations of the future – one is that Earth becomes a garden full of poets and artists watched over by machines of loving grace, a utopia where we solve all of our problems completely and our biggest problem is boredom. At the other end of the spectrum is a dystopia like Mad Max where we don’t solve our problems and everything is falling apart – that’s more popular in science-fiction.
The truth is probably neither of those.” Hillis thinks that humanity’s two major upcoming challenges are global warming – no surprises there – and the grossly uneven distribution of wealth, citing Oxfam’s recent report about the 85 richest people in the world owning as much wealth as the poorest 50% of people on the planet. “That’s not a stable situation,” he says.

The clock is a sophisitcated amalgam of cogs, wheels and dialsRolfe Horn & The Long Now Foundation

The clock is a sophisticated amalgam of cogs, wheels and dials

Future innovation

Brian Eno thinks that the 10,000 Year Clock is all about starting a conversation about the deep future. “When I talk to people about the clock they say that it’s a pretty daft idea. How can you know what’s going to happen in 3,000 or 5,000 years time?” he says. “Then we start to talk and after a little while they realise they’re doing something they’ve never done before, which is to think about the distant future.”

Whether the Clock in the Mountain survives a long life in Jeff Bezos’ garden is not the issue. By counting down into the deep future, this innovation is about getting us all to ponder the single question that future generations – our descendants – would want us to ask: what happens next?

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