[note: SitM loves this project. If only more billionaires were willing to channel a small part of their wealth to projects like this . . . . ]
There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.
The Clock is real. It is now being built inside a mountain in western Texas. This Clock is the first of many millennial Clocks the designers hope will be built around the world and throughout time.
There is a second site for another Clock already purchased at the top of a mountain in eastern Nevada, a site surrounded by a very large grove of 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines. Appropriately, bristlecone pines are among the longest-lived organisms on the planet. The designers of the Clock in Texas expect its chimes will keep ringing twice as long as the oldest 5 millennia-old bristlecone pine. Ten thousand years is about the age of civilization, so a 10K-year Clock would measure out a future of civilization equal to its past. That assumes we are in the middle of whatever journey we are on – an implicit statement of optimism.
The Clock is now being machined and assembled in California and Seattle. Meantime the mountain in Texas is being readied. Why would anyone build a Clock inside a mountain with the hope that it will ring for 10,000 years? Part of the answer: just so people will ask this question, and having asked it, prompt themselves to conjure with notions of generations and millennia. If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest? If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well? If the Clock keeps going after we are personally long dead, why not attempt other projects that require future generations to finish? The larger question is, as virologist Jonas Salk once asked, “Are we being good ancestors?”
The Clock’s inventor introduced the idea of the Clock (in 01995) with this context:
I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.
I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.
That’s Danny Hillis, a polymath inventor, computer engineer, and designer, inventor and prime genius of the Clock. He and Stewart Brand, a cultural pioneer and trained biologist, launched a non-profit foundation to build at least the first Clock. Fellow traveler and rock musician Brian Eno named the organization The Long Now Foundation to indicate the expanded sense of time the Clock provokes – not the short now of next quarter, next week, or the next five minutes, but the “long now” of centuries. Eno also composed the never-repeating melody generator that rings the Clock’s chimes inside the mountain. Other people unhappy with our society’s short-attention span are part of this group, including me, one of its charter officers. This Clock in the Mountain is being funded and built on property owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. Bezos is also active in designing the full experience of the Clock.
The first step in this multi-decade project was to construct a working 8-foot-tall prototype. This test version was finished (just in time) on New Year’s Eve 1999. At the stroke of midnight, the prototype 10,000-year Clock bonged twice to usher in the new millennia, the year 2000, in front of a small crowd at its temporary home in the Presidio, San Francisco. The Clock now resides in the London Science Museum. Somewhat worrisome, there have been moments when it was not wound.
In contrast to the human-scale of the prototype, the Clock in the mountain will be monumental, almost architectural in scale. It will be roughly 200 feet tall. Located under a remote limestone mountain near Van Horn, Texas, it will require a day’s hike to reach its interior gears. Just reaching the entrance tunnel situated 1500 feet above the high scrub desert will leave some visitors out of breath, nicked by thorns, and wondering what they got themselves into.
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