10,000 Year Clock
Home | Sci-Tech | Medical | Features | Profiles | Marriage Peril | Bio

The 10,000-Year Clock 

by Douglas PageŠ1998

If Daniel Hillis is right, 100 years from now crowds will begin assembling at the Resort of the Far Tomorrows well before December 31, 02099, in anticipation of a singular centennial event - the chiming of his 10,000 Year Clock.

This clock, a Stonehenge-size oracle of time, engineered with pyramid durability to operate and survive 10,000 years, is his creation. He intends it to last, in fact, as long as Stonehenge and the pyramids combined. Its purpose is to remind us we are not just living in the now, we are living in what muscian Brian Eno calls the "long now".

"The clock ticks once a year, chimes on the century and the 'cuckoo comes out' on the millennium," says Hillis, who has a habit of thinking off the scale. While the 'cuckoo' may be a figure of speech, the clock is not. Hillis is known for embracing the extreme. This is the man renown for pioneering the concept of massively parallel supercomputers (he once designed a machine with 64,000-processors). Presently, he is one of the four celebrated Imagineering Fellows hired by Michael Eisner to rejuvenate entertainment technology for the Walt Disney Company.

Hillis has imagineered something this time that might restrain a pharaoh. The 10,000 Year Clock, and its associated library, synthesizes the "long now" idea.


"For most of us, 'now' is about a week, sometimes a year," says Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, one of a quixotic corps of visionaries called The Long Now Foundation the clock has attracted. (The others include Eno, Broderbund Software founder Douglas Carlston, Institute for the Future director Paul Saffo, Release 1 creator Esther Dyson, Global Business Network chairman Peter Schwartz, Wired Magazine editor Kevin Kelly, and Lotus software founder Mitchell Kapor.) "For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, 'now' is seven generations backward and forward (350 years). Just as the Apollo photographs of Earth gave us a sense of 'the big here,' we need something which gives people a sense of 'the long now.'" This is where the clock comes in.

Why bother? Hillis puts it this way. When the old oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford, needed replacing last century, carpenters cut the new beams from oak trees planted for just that purpose five hundred years earlier by the original fourteenth century builders.

Hillis wonders who's planting our oaks.

He worries that the acceleration of technology has blurred our vision, that society has developed a necessary, if not pathological, short attention span. "Our problem is that, literally, we cannot imagine the future," Hillis says. "When I was a kid, thirty years ago, the future was a long way off. Dates like 1984 and 2001 were comfortably remote. Yet, in all this time, the future that people think about has not moved past the millennium. It's as if the future has been shrinking one year per year for my entire life."

What we are left with is an over-emphasis on the present, he argues, which has distorted our responsibility to the future. Our technology reflects this. Witness the year-2000 panic underway now to change all the computer chips and programs to accommodate a year that doesn't begin with "19"; no one thought that through thirty years ago.

Even the hardware is unreliable. Within five years, nearly all federal transactions (health, taxes, etc) will take place electronically. All literature will soon be digitized. Yet archivists and librarians warn that electronic scrolls - computer disks, CD-ROMS and magnetic tapes - appear to be far less durable than simple parchment.

For instance, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, recently tried to read some of the data collected from the 1976 Viking-Mars mission. The data, thought to be safely stored on magnetic tapes, already has begun to decompose.

Hillis, an adjunct professor in the famed Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes society needs a long-focus lens to correct its myopia. The 10,000 Year Clock is his prescription. "Some sort of balance to the shortsightedness is needed," says Hillis. "Some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where long-term is measured at least in centuries."


The Long Now Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, is determined to build the clock and could possibly have it operating by December 31, 01999, so we can behold the inaugural 'cuckoo', a millennial soliloquy that won't reoccur until 02999.

A permanent location is still being scouted, but once constructed the clock will be housed under an arena-sized translucent dome, probably in the southwestern desert, perhaps on a New Mexican bluff embracing an alluvial panorama so sweeping it appears to flow forever into the future.

First, the Foundation is building an eight foot prototype. "This will cost between $500,000 and $1 million, which has already been donated," says Long Now Foundation director Alexander Rose.

The next scale is an urban clock, built to promote interest, and generate funds. The permanent complex, built for longevity, comes later, probably in the high desert, attractive as much for its high-preservation climate as for its galvanic horizons. Still, to retard decay, only about one-third of the dome housing the clock will protrude above ground level.

"The urban model will probably be 20 feet tall and cost about five times as much as the prototype. We're looking at cities on the West Coast because we have so many good contacts here," Rose says. "The desert version will probably cost in the tens of millions of dollars, but it's not possible to estimate that until we find a site. The funds so far have all come from donations, although we are starting to look a foundation grants."

Hillis, who has been known to drive a fire truck to work and once designed toys for Milton Bradley, thinks the 10,000 Year Clock will eventually embody "deep time" in the public mind, becoming an attraction so compelling and charismatic it will draw travelers from around the world - a utile Tomorrow Land.

The clock may even depend on tourists to operate. One proposed power source is an apparatus that harnesses the energy in foot traffic. Other suggestions for power include seasonal temperature variations, water, wind or tides. Hillis favors human winding because it fits with the clocks' goals of becoming a cultural tool. Along with telling time, the clock will tell us something about ourselves, he says. "Such icons reframe the way people think. The point is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over longer periods of time. For now, we are building an astonishing clock and a unique library. We'll see what develops from there."

The clock's adjoining library, containing the chronicles and records necessary to nurture responsibility for the future, would be available for conferences and focused research in its special collections. Hillis believes that through the ages the library will become a repository "of the deep future", housing the annals of extreme longitudinal scientific studies and acquiring a "Responsibility Record" - a register of policy decisions with long-term consequences, the accumulating legacy of 400 generations.

Hillis knows what will run the clock - a digital-binary mechanism so accurate and revolutionary he has patented it. And he knows the clock's face will resemble a one hundred-foot disc composed of as many as fourteen washer-shaped rotating rings.

Eleven inner rings plot astronomic phenomena, revolving in synchronization with the position of the sun, moon and the six visible inner planets. The three other inner rings represent an astrolabe (an ancient tool for showing the position of the brightest stars at any time or date); an indicator that tracks the precession of the equinoxes through its 28,500 year westward rotation through the ecliptic; and an eclipse predictor.

A massive gimbal-mounted armillary sphere (a celestial instrument first used by Greek astronomers in which the sky is represented by a skeletal framework of intersecting circles) arches across the clock face, spanning the eleven inner rings, buttressing a lens aligned with the mid-day sun.

The three rings outside the armillary function like the hands on a watch, providing a 10,000 year Julian calendar. Notched like protractors, these rings click daily past the index pointer from January 1, 01999 through December 31, 11999, respectively taking one year, one hundred years and one thousand years to complete their revolutions. Each day is thus aligned with the corresponding astronomic events indicated on the inner rings.

The ring design allows later generations to reconfigure the rings to correspond to their own particular calendar conventions.


What Hillis doesn't yet know is what material to use to build a clock capable of surviving 100 centuries. Long Now Foundation's Rose recently solicited suggestions from the Internet sci.engr.metallurgy newsgroup, wondering what metals might be considered for a device whose plans specify an operational life of 10,000 years. Responses ranged from sober to silly, but the question provoked a lively discussion about longevity - the precise purpose of the clock.

"Use granite. It lasts longer."

"Assuming the clock will be housed in either a vacuum or an environment flushed with nitrogen, stainless steel would last 10,000 years."

"Sheets of sapphire can stand up to anything."

"So can the skins of politicians."

"Ceramics, glass and rocks are the only reliable artifacts we find now in tombs that are thousands of years old."

"Stay away from all metals except gold, but don't put any solid gold in - eliminate any temptation for looters."

"We already have a 10,000 year clock. It's called 'the stars'."

"Metal aggregates have survived without severe erosion for millions of years. We call them rocks."

"Use slate, granite and obsidian where you can, and bronze where you can't."

Whatever the clock is made of, the structure will have two wide foot ramps, joined at their peak and wrapped through each other into a sort of three-dimensional infinite spiral. Visitors will be able to walk up the ramps to where they can peer down on the positions of the giant rotating rings and imposing arms leaning against time.

From there, guests can descend below, into the clockworks, to inspect the disc alignments, examine the archives and displays devoted to fostering a sense of time, and to ponder our place in a heritage that conceived and maintains a human almanac extending 3,650,000 days.


This article appeared in the October, 1998, issue of Southwest Airlines inflight Spirit Magazine.

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Assignments? douglaspage@earthlink.net
Back to Top. Return to Home Page.