The 10,000-Year Clock

In a society largely focused on the disposable, Danny Hillis imagines a 10,000-Year Clock that will outlast hundreds of generations.
By Staff, Utne Reader
March/April 2012
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“Society needs to think long term or risk failing to appreciate such century-spanning problems as climate change and deforestation,” said Alexander Rose of the 10,000-Year Clock project.

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A construction crew has broken ground on one of the most forward-thinking creations of our ephemeral age: a giant clock built inside a Texas mountain and designed to keep time for 10,000 years. Other resilient structures—such as nuclear-waste facilities and global seed vaults—have been constructed to last thousands of years, but they aren’t working machines with moving parts.

The ambitious project, rumored to have a $42 million budget, was conceived by supercomputer engineer Danny Hillis, who wanted a concrete antidote to our speed-obsessed culture. As his project manager, Alexander Rose, told IEEE Spectrum (November 2011), “Society needs to think long term or risk failing to appreciate such century-spanning problems as climate change and deforestation.” Financing comes from billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who jumped at the opportunity to fund an undertaking that syncs so harmoniously with his personal business philosophy: “It’s all about the long term.”

Gleaning inspiration from enduring structures like the tower of Jericho and the Egyptian pyramids, teams of engineers have been testing silica and other super-durable materials. They’re also deciding the best equipment to use for the gears, bearings, piston, and pendulum; how to prevent the components from welding together; and how to make the 10,000-Year Clock vandal-proof yet accessible for future repair. The remote desert location in Texas’ western Big Bend Country requires a committed pilgrimage for modern sightseers, although, as IEEE notes, “it’s anyone’s guess what this place will be like in 10,000 years.” Visitors will descend 500 feet of tunnels and shafts, climbing down a spiral staircase etched directly into the mountain rock to eventually reach the clock. “People need to be able to stumble across it and understand how it works and how to maintain it,” Rose says.

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