Deep inside a limestone mountain near Van Horn, Texas, a new kind of time is being constructed. A vertical shaft drilled 500 feet inside the stone will one day be home to the 10,000 Year Clock, a timekeeping mechanism designed to measure millennial time. “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years,” inventor Danny Hillis said of his creation. Fashioned from titanium, ceramics, quartz, sapphire, and high-molybdenum stainless stee, the clock moves so slowly that not a single hand may budge during the course of a human lifetime.
The 10,000 Year Clock will measure five different kinds of time (pendulum time, uncorrected solar time, corrected solar time, displayed solar time, and orrery time), three types of days (solar, orrery, sidereal), and four types of years (tropical, sidereal, calendar, and cam). The dial will also display the phase of the moon and the position of stars and visible planets in the sky. Hillis hopes the end result will be to “implement a living simulation of the solar system in a shaft drilled 500 feet into a mountain.”
The clock will derive its energy and synchronicity from the sun, as well as from the body heat of its occasional visitors. It is designed to operate without human interference or attention; it is not being created for the purposes of display, as it will not even display the correct time unless prompted. “In order to get the correct time, you need to ‘ask’ the clock,” writes Kevin Kelly, a board member of the Long Now Foundation that is supporting the project. “When you first come upon the dials the time it displays is an older time given to the last person to visit. If no one has visited in a while, say, since 8 months and 3 days ago, it will show the time it was then. To save energy, the Clock will not move its dials unless they are turned, that is, powered, by a visitor.” On the rare occasion that it has an audience, the clock’s chimes will play a unique melody—they will be programmed not to repeat a single tune in 10,000 years. Yet they may also ring when no one is there to hear them, prompted by a surfeit of solar energy.
A second millenial clock will be built in eastern Nevada amid a forest of bristlecone pines, which as Kelly points out, are among the oldest organisms on earth. “The designers of the Clock in Texas expect its chimes will keep ringing twice as long as the oldest 5 millennia-old bristlecone pine. Ten thousand years is about the age of civilization, so a 10K-year Clock would measure out a future of civilization equal to its past,” he writes. “That assumes we are in the middle of whatever journey we are on – an implicit statement of optimism.”
Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, is funding the project. “It’s a special Clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking,” Bezos writes. “As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems. We’re likely to need more long-term thinking.” Investing in the 10,000 Year Clock makes him the architect of both compressed and expanded millennial time. Perhaps no other company has done more to compress time for capital dispersion than Amazon.com, with its drone same-day delivery. The capital derived from that compression will be funneled toward correcting the architecture of Amazon’s success, toward expanding human conceptions of civilizational time.
Bezos, Jeff (2011). ‘10,000 Year Clock.’ http://www.10000yearclock.net/updates.html
Hillis, Danny, and Rob Seaman, Steve Allen, Jon Giorgini (2011). ‘Time in the 10,000-Year Clock.’ http://media.longnow.org/files/2/10_AAS_11-665_Hillis.pdf
Kelly, Kevin (2011). ‘Introduction: The 10,000 Year Clock.’ http://longnow.org/clock/