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DIGITAL ×—Danny Hillis, "10,000 Years"


Danny Hillis
10,000 Years

The road leading to the Clock of the Long Now.

Nick Axel What brought you to this idea of building a 10,000-year clock?

Danny Hillis I started thinking about it in the late 1980s, early 1990s. When I was a child, people always used to think about the year 2000. And when it got to be the 1990s, people were still just thinking about the year 2000. It was as if the future was shrinking, and I wanted to live in a longer future. I began working on the clock just for my own purposes, because I wanted an excuse to think longer term. Then as I spoke with my friends about it, they got interested and I realized that the clock was more broadly relevant. Lots of people wanted an excuse to think about the future in a different way. So eventually, Stewart Brand said that we should start a foundation to build it. With the Long Now Foundation we've built several models over the decades, and the clock is actually on its way to being finished inside a mountain in Texas.

NA What has it taken to build such a contraption?

DH I always imagined the clock as this experience of traveling through a desert, climbing up to the base up a mountain, finding a hole, going deep inside, and coming across a spiral staircase going up into it, where there would be a bunch of machinery. So I first had to find an empty mountain out in the desert that had the right kind of geology, which I was lucky enough to do. Once I did that, I had to bring in the equipment to make it. But there was no way to get to the mountain—there were no roads—so I had to build the roads. Eventually we started tunneling and blasting into the center of the mountain, and we serendipitously came across a natural cave right where the horizontal and vertical were meant to meet. We started on the vertical shaft by making a small hole with a drilling rig on the top of the mountain, and then pulled what’s called a raise drill up to create the twelve-foot hole. We then had to build a spiral staircase up through the shaft, so we designed a special robot with a diamond saw that could climb up the hole, and which over a few years has slowly climbed up about 500 feet into the mountain carving a staircase out of the shaft wall. Then we started to build the actual elements of the clock, which all have to be made of materials that can actually last 10,000 years, like high millennium stainless steel, titanium, and ceramics. All of the bearings are made without lubrication too. We've got about sixty tons of machinery inside the mountain so far, and it's about half in.

NA So how does it work?

DH The clock is designed so that it not only keeps time but also powers itself. It harnesses the day-to-night temperature shift and the piezoelectricity of ground quartz. It synchronizes itself, too. On summer solstice, the sun shines straight down the shaft and warms a part of the clock up, so it can adjust itself to that moment and stay on time. And of course, you cannot display time on a 10,000-year clock in the normal way, with years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, so it displays the position of the sun and the moon and the stars, which move around as the clock goes.

NA What do you imagine it would be like to visit the clock, once it’s built?

DH If you visit the clock, you have to make a pretty big commitment. It's far away. It's out in the desert. You have to climb a mountain. It's designed so that along the way you feel like you might be lost, or that you’re in the wrong place. And then you finally get to a point where you're at the bottom of a giant stairwell, with a tiny light up at the top, and as you climb up, you pass the machinery, and once you get to the top you can wind it. The clock rewards you for winding it by ringing a set of bells, and each time the bells ring differently.

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