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Science and Technology

The 10,000 year clock

Abigail Smith
In our digital and disposable age, what will we leave behind for future generations? A giant clock designed to tick for 10,000 years in the middle of a mountain, for one thing.

Isn’t it annoying to wait for things nowadays? Like a reply to that email you sent this morning, for example. With internet on our smartphones, we’re now willing to wait even less time for a response.

Our collective impatience might work for us now – but it doesn’t say much for humanity’s prospects. Composer Brian Eno calls it a ‘peculiar form of selfishness, a studied disregard for the future.’ Trying to change all this is The Long Now Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation of which Eno is a founding board member. They want to make long-term thinking more common through a series of though-provoking projects, including a clock hidden deep in a Texas mountain that will tell the time for 10,000 years.

The mountain is alive with the sound of music

Reached through a hidden jade door almost 2,000ft above the valley and up a spiral staircase cut into the rock beyond, the clock will reward intrepid pilgrims who wind it up with the correct time and a melody that has never been heard before. Acting as a computer, it calculates the sequence of chimes to play from a melody generator composed by Eno, all without electricity or traditional gears that would age and wear.

Metallic rods expand and contract to harness energy from the desert’s dramatic daily temperature changes, keeping it going even when it’s not wound up. The clock adjusts itself according to the diurnal cycle, so it will work out the astronomical time as long as the sun keeps shining – regardless of whether humans are still surviving on earth.

But that’s not to say the clock doesn’t need visitors. While the clock ‘knows’ the time, it won’t display it until the separate mechanism on the face is wound. And although the clock can continue to chime for a while of its own accord, it will always sing at the touch of a human hand.

In it for the long haul

A clock playing its own unique music in a mountain when there’s no one around to hear it may be impossibly romantic, but the clock holds far deeper meanings. The ten millennia lifespan was chosen because it is roughly the age of our civilisation: 10,000 years ago, agriculture first began in earnest, paving the way for unprecedented progress.

If we’re halfway through our human journey, then what other adventures still await us as a species? And how will we ensure there is something for our great, great, great children worth inheriting? If we can think on a scale that reaches beyond our own lifetime, then investing in education or preventing global warming suddenly becomes more pressing. When it comes to making a difference, there’s no time like the present.

Photo by Rolfe Horn courtesy of The Long Now Foundation.

A clock playing its own unique music in a mountain when there’s no one around may be impossibly romantic, but the clock's lifespan was chosen to mirror the age of our civilisation

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