If you’ve been rattling around in horology circles in the last 15 or 20 years, you may have run across a unique (and I do mean unique) clock project, undertaken by an organization called the Long Now Foundation. The Long Now Foundation was created in 1996, and “…hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.” One of its initiatives is the Clock Of The Long Now, which is designed to run for at least 10 millennia, without any need for human intervention. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took an interest in the project six years ago, and has funded it to the tune of $42 million, and he recently shared a time-lapse video of the clock’s construction. The installation phase of the project has begun and part of the video shows the installation of the clock’s massive driving weight.
The Clock Of The Long Now is an extremely interesting project from a technical standpoint, to say the least. It’s essentially a grandfather clock on steroids, although to say so is a fairly dramatic understatement. The clock is the brainchild of inventor and computer engineer Danny Hillis and the name of the Foundation was suggested by his friend, the composer Brian Eno; in 2000, an eight-foot-tall working prototype was shown, and now the full version itself is coming together.
The heart of the clock is a titanium torsion pendulum that beats once every 10 seconds. The falling weight that powers the clock can be wound by hand, but it is kept wound by solar power: sunlight shines into an aperture in the 500-ft.-deep chamber in which the clock sits, striking an air-filled cylinder. The expansion of the cylinder provides enough energy to lift the falling weight slightly, and also provides a solar noon time reference for correcting the clock. I just said that this is a grandfather clock on steroids, but really it’s more of an Atmos clock on steroids and I wonder if the Atmos might not have partially influenced the design for the Clock Of The Long Now, as two key features of the Atmos are its very slow beat (one second) torsion pendulum, and the fact that it’s kept wound by changes in temperature. And of course, there is the fact that the Atmos will keep running without human intervention, which is an essential feature for the Clock Of The Long Now.
One key energy feature for the clock is that the displays are not active until a human enters the clock chamber and fully winds the mechanism. Once the weight is in its uppermost position, the time will be displayed on the main clock dial, the positions of the planets in the orrery atop the clock will be updated, and a complex chiming mechanism will ring the time; the chiming mechanism consists of a stack of gears that are capable of calculating a different strike order for the clock’s 10 gongs, every day, for 10,000 years.
The clock’s materials are deliberately inexpensive, to discourage looting, and its location (on land Bezos owns) is quite remote; the nearest airport is two hours away and getting to the clock chamber requires hiking up 2,000 feet from the desert floor. It’s also designed so that most of its components can be repaired using nothing more than Bronze Age technology and tools.
A clock designed to run for 10,000 years is an hubristic project, of course, but also a quite fascinating one – you can watch the installation video as well as find out more about the clock, and its chances of running for about as long as human civilization has existed, at LongNow.org.