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The Clock of the Long Now (2000-12,000) is a clock designed to keep time – hours, minutes, seconds, days, years, months – for 10,000 years. In the words of its inventor, Danny Hillis, it:

ticks once a year,
bongs once a century,
and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

long-now-clockWhen the cuckoo comes out next, in 3000, it will show the year not as “3000” but as “03000”. Because one day it will need that much space to show the year.

The Clock is an idea that took hold of Hillis in 1986 and has not let go of him since.

The clock is not built yet. Right now Hillis and others are building prototypes – smaller clocks that show how the big one will work.

The big one, the one that will last 10,000 years, will stand 20 metres tall, as tall as a building with five floors, and be in the side of a mountain in the desert land east of California. In fact, they have already bought a mountaintop for it near Ely, Nevada. They wanted a place where it almost never rains, where no one wants to live, where the trees last for 5,000 years.

Very few man-made things last more than 500 years without constant care and upkeep. The Clock is no different. But to last 10,000 years it will have to designed a certain way:

  • It must not be made of anything anyone would want to take.
  • It must be clear how it works without taking it apart – so that no one will want to (or have to) take it apart.
  • It must be powered by natural forces.
  • It must be built so that even if during a dark age people forget how to build clocks, they can understand this one and how to keep it going.
  • It must keep time for 10,000 year without being off by more than a second.

Hillis is a computer designer. At MIT he once built a computer of Tinkertoys that could not be beaten at tic-tac-toe. So it is no surprise that the Clock of the Long Now is also a computer, one that is powered by natural forces to count and add seconds, over 300 billion of them. And, at the same time, keep track of where the sun is in the sky, of leap centuries, all of it.

The Clock will show time according to the Gregorian calendar, the one currently used in the West – but which may no longer be in use in 10,000 years! It will also show where the sun is against the stars and the waxing of the moon. It will use light from the sun at noon to keep it from running too slow or too fast.

It was Hillis’s friend, the musician Brian Eno, who came up with the name. Stewart Brand (“The Whole Earth Catalog”) is also taking part.

Along with the Clock will be a Rosetta stone, a new one recording 1500 of the world’s 7,000 languages (half of which will die out in the next hundred years!). Work on that is under way too.

– Abagond, 2009.

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