A parallel Worlds

Sunday November 20 2011 / Science & Technology - Art & Design

Ever heard the one about the visionary, the engineer, the philanthropist and the musician? Oh, and the clock…the very big clock?
 
Step forward the visionary, Danny Hillis. Inventor, computer engineer and designer. At the start of the 1990s, Hillis started to think about building a clock that marks the passing of a whopping 10,000 years: A clock that chimes once a day, ticks once a year, has a hand that advances once every century. Plus a cuckoo that comes once a millennium.


 
When I was a growing up in the 1960s, people used to imagine what it would be like in ‘the future’, what would happen by the year 2000,” says Hillis.
 
“When the 1990s arrived, I found that people still perceived ‘the future’ as the year 2000. I didn’t want ‘the future’ to stop there, so I started to envisage a clock that would last for 10,000 years. Initially, it was just a personal project but then I realised the idea of the clock was making others think about the future and that the clock was inspiring long-term thinking.”
 
As part of his goal to promote long-term thinking, Hillis helped establish the Long Now Foundation, an association of like-minded people unhappy with society’s short-attention span and interested in an expanded sense of time as symbolised by the clock – not the “short now” of the next quarter year, next week or the next five minutes, but the “long now” of centuries and millennia.
 
One of those people was seminal ambient musician Brian Eno, who actually coined the foundation’s name.


 
The first prototype of the clock began working on December 31, 1999, just in time to display the transition to the year 2000. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the date indicator changed from 01999 to 02000, and the chime struck twice.
 
More prototypes followed and thanks to the philanthropy of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, construction of the full-size clock started earlier this year in a remote mountain in the Sierra Diablos, Texas. Bezos has put a cool $42million into the project.
 
“I've been helping Danny with the 10,000 year clock project for the last half dozen years,”. I hope the clock becomes an icon for long-term thinking and gets people considering more about the future.

“Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won't exist. Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can't imagine the world – no-one can – that we're trying to get this clock to pass through.”



 
The monumental clock will be 60m (200ft) tall and rest 150m (500ft) into the mountain. Gears as high as 2.5m (8ft) tall weighing 450kg (1,000lbs) are being built and the clock will be ‘self-winding’ thanks to a mixture of thermal power and weights as heavy as 9,000kg (20,000lbs).
 
Hillis adds: “The clock will keep ticking on its own but it won’t tell the time until someone winds it forward. If you walk away from it for a thousand years, it will keep on ticking.”
 
One of the main challenges has been how to cut the stair access along the vertical tunnel where much of the clock mechanism will be.
 
The mountain will also house five chambers to mark one-year, 10-year, 100-year 1,000-year and 10,000-year anniversaries of the clock, but only the first two will be built and the rest left for future generations to construct.


 
And the clock’s bells will chime a different, never-repeating sequence every day for 10,000 years via a melody generator created by legendary producer Eno, making every visitor’s experience unique.
 
But many of those ditties may never be heard because visiting the clock will take some commitment: The nearest airport is several hours away by car, and the foot trail to it is rugged, rising almost 600m (2,000ft) above the valley floor.



Above is a time lapse of the building of one full size section of the Chime Generator for the 10,000 Year Clock. Eventually there will be 30 sections like this stacked vertically in an underground chamber leading up to the Clock face chamber. It will be several hundred feet tall. Also note the 'trilobe' gears, these triangular gears help flatten out the speed and torque curve of driving the mechanism. This version is made of steel, aluminum, and even wood while they sort out the engineering and scaling issues. The next versions will be ceramic, stone, and stainless steel.



For more information on the 10,000 year clock project, please visit: http://www.10000yearclock.net/
 
And if you have an idea for how to kit out the 10-year anniversary chamber, you can email it to 10-year-chamber@10000yearclock.net.

Suggested by
Ian Skellern