Clock of the Long Now

The Clock of the Long Now showing the year 02,000.

The year 02,000. Only 1/5 of the way to the year 10,000.

In this ever-advancing modern era, where the mantra of the zeitgeist is “better, faster, cheaper,” Danny Hillis — inventor of the supercomputer that instigated our current fast-paced society — beseeches us to slow down, twiddle our thumbs and smell the roses. Hillis has been working since 1996 on a monument-sized clock to be sited on a limestone cliff in eastern Nevada, dubbed the Clock of the Long Now. This clock is nothing like your average wristwatch. The Clock of the Long Now will be large enough for visitors to walk around in and is designed to last 10,000 years — roughly the period in which humans enjoy a relatively constant climate and advancements in culture and technology. It will tick only once a year, bong once a century and cuckoo at the millennium, a pace Hillis hopes will inspire society to think in terms of decades, centuries and millennia, as opposed to the prevailing harried New York minute.

During the 1980s and 90s, Hillis developed and debuted the first “parallel” supercomputer, which efficiently processes hundreds to millions of pieces of information simultaneously, much in the same way the human mind works. This supercomputer, dubbed the Connection Machine, dramatically augmented the way that databases and computing systems work. Prior to Hillis’s invention, industries, markets and governments relied on “sequential” computers that slowly synthesized only one item at a time. It was truly an innovation for the ages; an invention that our very modern existence is hinged upon. The Connection Machine grew to such fame that it even made a cameo in Steve Speilberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and today, most all supercomputers are based on Hillis’s initial design.

Danny Hillis, supercomputer engineer, at a connections machine.

A young Danny Hillis hard at work at his connections machine console.

But the constant demand for bigger, faster systems prompted Hillis to pause and think about the long-term consequences of the frenetic pace of the new epoch. In 1993, Hillis wrote a contemplative, thought-provoking email to friends that was eventually parlayed into a 1995 article for Wired magazine. Hillis proposed that action be taken to slow down time for the sake of the fast-approaching future. Rallying his varied cast of friends, including musician Peter Gabriel, writer Stewart Brand and composer Brian Eno (the chimes of the Clock of the Long Now inspired the album January 07003 Bell Studies CD) among others, Hillis conceived of the idea to build a monument-sized clock that would last an epic 10,000 years.

What sounded like a work of science fiction or at least a pipe dream became a certain reality with the founding of the Long Now Foundation, and the crucial financial backing of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com; Mitchel Kapor, founder of Lotus software; Jay Walker, founder of Priceline.com, and his family; and Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems.

An early prototype of the clock of the long now, by Danny Hillis

Prototype in miniature of what will be the Clock of the Long Now.

It may seem contradictory that some of the biggest contributors to our current, technologically-aided, fast-paced way of life are seeking to slow things down, but as Long Now Foundation Executive Director Alexander Rose explains:

“I would say that it is precisely this close relationship to accelerating aspects of our culture that sensitized our founding board and core funders to what we all miss if we don’t pay attention to the slower and deeper opportunities. The Clock project in particular is a response that Danny [Hillis] had to people constantly asking him to build ever-faster computers. It made him wonder what we were missing in the slow space.”

In 1999, Hillis and his associates completed the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, a small-scale version currently on-view at the London Science Museum. The final monumental Clock will primarily be made of stainless steel, titanium and Monel, a mixed-metal alloy that was patented in 1906 and typically found in aerospace and submarine applications due to its high resistance to corrosion.

Mechanical moving pieces of the interior of the Clock of the Long Now.

The weights and balances of the Long Now. Pieces that could very well outlast humanity…

The ball bearings of the clock will be fabricated out of silicon nitride, a type of manufactured hard ceramic mass-marketed since the 1950s for moving car and space shuttle parts. In nature, silicon nitride is only found in miniscule amounts in fallen meteorites. It is extremely wear-resistant and does not require lubrication, making it ideal for the 10,000 year lifespan of the Clock of the Long Now.

As is fitting with the rationale for fostering future responsibility, the clock’s torsional pendulum will require periodic power through human winding. The accuracy of the clock will adjust with alignment to the sun.

The team is now at work on the second prototype, implementing advanced-wear testing to simulate the conditions the parts will face over 10,000 years to ensure the movements and ball-bearings last into the future as projected. Plots of land have been purchased for the installation of two colossal clocks: the previously mentioned site in eastern Nevada and the 2005 acquisition of land in Van Horn, Texas.

In addition to the consideration put into choosing the materials, the crux of the strategy for preserving the Clock for 10,000 years is to build most of the structure underground. Hillis cites a couple of long-lasting forerunners as prime examples: “The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, or to become lost.”

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