Blog Archive for the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ Category

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Where Time Begins

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Last year I had the opportunity to give a talk and tour of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC at the invitation of Demetrios Matsakis, the director of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Time Service department.  The Naval Observatory hosts the largest collection of precise frequency standards in the world, and uses them to, among other things, keep services like internet time and the global positioning system in your phone running correctly.

The USNO Master Clock is actually an average of many timing signals

The US Naval Observatory keeps track of time and distance in what seems like obscure ways, but these signals are used for some of the most widely trusted and life-critical systems on the planet.  The observatory uses a series of atomic clocks, ranging from hydrogen mazers to cesium fountain clocks, which are averaged into the time signals we all use in synchronizing internet servers and finding our way with the guidance of our phones.  In fact GPS would not be possible without the highly accurate time signals generated by the observatory, as time very literally equals distance when you are a satellite flying overhead at speeds that actually have to account for Einsteinian relativity.

The humble rack servers pumping out one of the most accurate and life-critical time signals in the world

The Naval Observatory is also part of the larger network in the US that includes NIST and several labs around the world that contribute to the international standards of time like Universal Coordinated Time or UTC.  These time standards are defined in collaboration: many of the world’s national labs send in how long a second lasts based on their clocks, and these seconds are then averaged to define the second for the month.  But ironically, they do this in retrospect and sometimes add leap seconds, so they only know what the ‘second’ was last month, not this month.

I am often asked when explaining the 10,000 Year Clock why we do not use an atomic clock, as they are often reported to be accurate to “one second in 30 million years”.  But this does not mean they will last 30 million years; it is just a way to explain an accuracy of 10-9 seconds in everyday terms.  These atomic clocks are extremely fragile and fussy machines that require very exact temperatures and deep understanding of atomic science in order to even read them.  They sometimes only last a few years.

Two of the Rubidium Fountain Clocks at the USNO used to create the master time signal

Demetrios was also able to tell me more about some of the long-term timing issues that affect The 10,000 Year Clock.  Because the Clock synchronizes with the sun on any sunny day, one of the effects that we have to take into account is the rate at which the Earth’s rotational rate may change from millennium to millennium.  It turns out that the earth’s rotation can be greatly affected by climate change.  If the poles freeze in an ice age, and all the water freezes closer to the poles, the earth spins faster.  If the current warming trend continues and the poles melt extensively, the mass of the water around the equator will slow the earth’s rotational rate.  All these changes affect where the sun will appear in the sky, and since our clock uses the sun to synchronize, it is an effect we have to account for.  While this was all known to us, there is a counter effect that Demetrios told me about.  It turns out that when there is less water weighing down one of the tectonic plates of the earth, it rises up higher, counteracting some of the mass altered by the shift in water.  We will be investigating this further to see if it changes our calculations.

Many thanks to Demetrios Matsakis for inviting me to the Naval Observatory, it was an honor to present to some of the most technical horologists in the world, and witness the place where the ephemerality of time is pinned down to just “one second in 30 million years”.

Alexander Rose on The 10,000 Year Clock @ The Interval, Tuesday 10/28

Posted on Thursday, October 23rd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Zander photo by Chris Michel small
Alexander Rose photo by Christopher Michel

Alexander Rose: Designing for Longevity
Building The 10,000 Year Clock
Tuesday October 28, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (check-in at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets recommended

Late in the last millennium, Danny Hillis told a small group of friends about his idea for building a monument-scale clock that would last for 10,000 years. The group included Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Brian Eno – and the conversations that followed led to the founding of The Long Now Foundation in 01996. Ever since then, Long Now has worked to bring the Clock into reality.

Alexander Rose has been there almost from the start. The first employee of Long Now, he assisted Danny Hillis in early design work. Now he is the Foundation’s Executive Director and serves as the project manager for the full-sized Clock construction which is now underway in Texas. In his talk at The Interval he will discuss both the beginnings of the Clock project and where we are today.

The Clock has been built slowly, methodically, with a dedication to doing it right for the long term. And without a short-term deadline. The design process has been slow and painstaking. Our prototypes are built from the highest-quality materials and feature hand-crafted custom work. Our durability testing approximates the wear of slow moving mechanisms running for thousands of years.

Tickets are still available but space is limited and this talk will sell out

This talk will also include the lessons that Long Now’s team has learned from studying these previous millennial design projects. Alexander has travelled the world researching other projects designed to last for a thousand years or more. These include the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Granite Mountain Records Vault built by the Mormon Church, and most recently Ise Grand Shrine in Japan.


Alexander Rose is Executive Director of The Long Now Foundation and project manager of the construction of the full-sized 10,000 Year Clock which is now underway in West Texas.

Zander Rose and the first Clock prototype

Alexander’s combat robots have won six world championship titles and appeared in the TV show BattleBots. Alexander has built large pyrotechnic displays for the Burning Man festival, robotic bartenders, and other dangerous machines. He is part of the Thiel Fellowship Network, and founded the Robot Fighting League.

Long Now’s Orrery Prototype For The 10,000 Year Clock

Posted on Friday, June 27th, 02014 by Austin Brown
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The Long Now's Orrery prototype

One of the first things that visitors see when they walk into The Interval, Long Now’s new public space, is the Orrery–a prototype for part of the 10,000 Year Clock now under construction. The Orrery is a simplified mechanical model of our solar system, a precise and durable computer, and an eight-foot-tall kinetic sculpture.

This is our 21st century interpretation of an ancient device: the first record of a planetary model dates back two millennia. While the modern design, the direct ancestor of Long Now’s Orrery, was first built in England three centuries ago.

The Orrery at The Interval

Our Orrery’s display features the six planets that can be seen with the naked eye (Mercury through Saturn). The “bit adder” gears below the planetary display each drives a planet. The prototype is designed to update each planet’s position twice a day, so this model of the solar system can show their positions in orbit around the Sun accurately.

A kinetic sculpture of the Long Now: Mercury completes one revolution in about 88 days; the Earth takes exactly one solar year; Saturn makes it around the Sun in just under thirty years. So in the time since this prototype was first completed in 02005, Saturn would have traveled only a third of its year.

Each of the Orrery’s planets is ground from a stone that resembles the actual celestial body:


  • Sun: Yellow Calcite
  • Mercury: Meteorite
  • Venus: Lemon Yellow Mexican Calcite
  • Earth: Chilean Lapis
  • Mars: Red Namibian Jasper
  • Jupiter: Banded Sandstone
  • Saturn: Banded Utah Onyx

Because we can look back and see that the way time has been measured throughout history has changed, it’s reasonable to imagine when looking forward that it will continue to change – our current use of hours, minutes, weeks and months may be as obscure and forgotten as the nundina, the akhet, or the gesh several millennia from now. The day, the year, and the movements of the other planets in our solar system, on the other hand, aren’t at the whim of the powers that be or of passing cultural trends. The 10,000 Year Clock, therefore, keeps track of these robust and durable units of time. The Clock’s main dial keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars while The Orrery models our solar system.

Also robust and durable is The Orrery’s mechanical system for calculating the planets’ movements. A large and complicated gear system could do the job, but would wear down and lose accuracy over the millennia. To avoid this problem, Danny Hillis invented a device called a serial bit adder – a simple mechanical binary computer. The bit adders calculate how much to move the planets in the display based on the known input of two rotations per day by the Orrery’s central shaft. As that shaft rotates it also turns the 6 bit adder disks: one for each planet.

A bit adder consists of a rotating disk and two sets of 27mechanical pins. Each individual pin can be in one of two states and each set of pins taken altogether represents a 27 bit number. One set of pins is immovable – these are set based on the calculation that particular bit adder must perform; they are the program. The other set of pins can move between the two possible states; they represent an accumulator.

As the bit adder’s disk rotates, a portion of the disk reads the program from the unmoving bits and is moved by them. Its movements cause the other set of bits to be flipped as necessary. Each time the adder rotates, it adds the number encoded in the static pins into the number encoded by the moveable ones. That number is a fraction between zero and one. As the outer pins accumulate the value represented by the inner pins, their value grows towards one. When they surpass a value of one, the adder produces an output that adjusts its corresponding planet by way of engaging a 6-sided Geneva wheel. In this way, a precise ratio can be calculated based on the two daily rotations of the central shaft and applied to the planets in the display.


The crucial mathematical logic for the bit adders is represented in the positions of the pins, which can only ever be in one of two states even if they become significantly worn. This is a digital representation. Most traditional clocks, on the other hand, perform their mathematics in the orientation of gears around an axis. A gear measured this way can be in an infinite number of states. This is an analog representation. As the gear’s teeth become worn, its position can shift and slip, allowing inaccuracy to build up within the system over long periods of time.

The Orrery was conceptualized by Danny Hillis, with project management and additional design by Alexander Rose. Lead engineer was Paolo Salvagione, and lead machinist and fabricator was Christopher Rand. Other machinists include Erio Brown, Brian Roe, Mark Ribaud, Reason Bradley, General Precision, Oakland Machine Works, Jim Johnson, Brian Ford, Ebin Stromquist, and the base was fabricated by Seattle Solstice.

Almost a decade after its completion, the Orrery has become an iconic image for Long Now and a fixture of our public space. Many first visit The Interval because they notice the unusual 8-foot tall structure through our window, and they have to know more. For Long Now members and staff it’s an inspiring reminder of the full-scale Clock, whose Orrery will be four times the size of our prototype. In the future the Sun and six planets may be the first clue to a visitor to the Clock site as to the nature of the device they’ve just discovered.

And others are inspired to reproduce the Orrery themselves:

Orrery sketched by Dan Bransfield

The Orrery is just one of many unique features of The Interval at Long Now. Come visit us and see the Orrery in person, have a delicious beverage, and enjoy all The Interval’s many pleasures. We are open 10AM to Midnight every day in San Francisco.

Edward Burtynsky: The 10,000-year Gallery – A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Wednesday, March 19th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In October 02008 Edward Burtynsky spoke for Long Now on The 10,000-year Gallery. Burtynsky, an internationally-recognized photographer, presented his ideas for a gallery of images to accompany the Clock of the Long Now.

Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives. Long Now members can watch this Seminar video here, and this talk is even better with the visuals.

SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcast. Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

Burtynsky’s The 10,000-year Gallery talk includes a formal proposal for a permanent art gallery in the chamber that encloses the 10,000-year Clock as well as the results of his research into methods of capturing images that might have the best chance to survive in the long-term.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

On the stage Burtynsky showed a large carbon transfer print of one of his ultra-high resolution photographs. The color and detail were perfect. Accelerated studies show that the print could hang in someone’s living room for 500 years and show no loss of quality. Kept in the Clock’s mountain in archival conditions it would remain unchanged for 10,000 years. He said that making one print takes five days of work, costs $2,000, and only ten artisans in the world have the skill, at locations in Toronto, Seattle, and Cornwall.

Edward Burtynsky‘s photographs are collected in museums all over the world. He is known for his large-format photographs of industrial landscapes which include mining locations around the globe and the building of Three Gorges Dam in China. His work has been noted for beautiful images which are often at odds with their subject’s negative environmental impacts. In recent years his work has focused on water including oil spills around the world.

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. The series is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Long Now members can watch the full video of this Seminar here—you must be logged in to the site. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits. Join Long Now today.

Chime Generator Table for The Interval at Long Now

Posted on Thursday, March 6th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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We want to share some of the details about The Interval, our public space in San Francisco which opens this Spring. We’ve planned a series of updates that will include an introduction to our Chalkboard Robot, more about Brian Eno’s sound & light installations in the space, documentation of the final construction work, and details on when the doors of The Interval will open, later this year.

First we’d like to tell you about our Chime Generator Table, which will be a centerpiece at The Interval. The Chime Generator prototype itself was a much-enjoyed feature at the first incarnation of our public space.

Here is the prototype in 02006 on the opening day of Long Now’s Museum and Store:

Long Now Chime Generator Museum 02006 Scott Beale

At the 02006 opening of Long Now’s Museum and Store, photo by Scott Beale

This Chime Generator is a prototype at about one tenth the scale of the one that is now being built for the Clock of the Long Now. The mechanism rings a series of ten bells, utilizing an algorithm designed by Long Now Board members Danny Hillis and Brian Eno to vary the order each day for more than 3.5 million permutations in total. This allows our Clock to play a different bell sequence for nearly every day of the next 10,000 years. Learn more about the Chime Mechanism.

The prototype was originally designed for us by Paolo Salvagione and Greg Staples, and was built by Christopher Rand. It is made mostly of waterjet aluminum with steel gears, screws, and bearings.

Over the years we have used both tubular bells (seen above) and metal “singing bowls” to demonstrate how the Clock will generate its daily song. For its life as a table, we’ve designed around the mechanism itself. While it is not built to last 10,000 years, this prototype did a vital job in proving a concept that we are now using in building the full-sized Clock. Now it has a job to do at The Interval.

As a table, the Chime Generator will be both a functioning piece of furniture and a museum artifact. As shown below, it awaits a slab of plate glass which will be placed on top. When you visit The Interval you can set your coffee or cocktail down and gaze into the inner workings of this piece of our Clock design. We hope it inspires as many questions and conversations as it has bell ringing permutations.


We have only weeks left to finish our fundraising for this space, and are currently about $100,000 short of our goal. We’re asking for your help: please consider donating to support this project. Any amount you can give brings us closer to the finish line! We have unique gifts to offer our donors, amongst other benefits. As an Interval supporter, you’ll be the first to hear news about the venue, you can suggest books for the Manual for Civilization and vote on other submissions, and best of all, you’ll receive invitations to our special pre-opening parties, the very first events at The Interval!

Here’s one more shot of the Chime Generator, this time with singing bowls attached, from the Anathem release event in 02008. It shared the stage with Long Now co-founders Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis, as well as Anathem author Neal Stephenson, who is himself a donor to our Interval ‘brickstarter’.

Neal Stephenson donated to The Interval

Long Now intro – sound by Brian Eno

Posted on Monday, July 22nd, 02013 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Today we’re debuting a 10-second animated Long Now intro that will soon be seen at the start of all Long Now videos and clips. It’s a brief glimpse into parts of The 10,000 Year Clock in virtual form as you watch 20,000 years tick by. Sometimes the long-term can be contemplated in small increments…

It features sound by Brian Eno that uses recordings of the 10,000 Year Clock (in progress) and visuals taken directly from the clock design as well.

This intro video was conceived by Alexander Rose, James Anderson and Chris Baldwin. The sound is by Brian Eno with additional recordings and arrangement by Chris Baldwin which includes sounds from the workings of the 10,000 Year Clock. The animation was created by James Anderson using actual model geometry of parts used in the Clock. The animation is © The Long Now Foundation 02013 and the sound is © Opal Ltd., London 02013.

Brian Eno vists the Long Now Clock shop

We hope it is enjoyed by everyone who already knows about the Clock and will be a compelling clue for others to want to learn more. Thanks to James, Chris, Brian and everyone else who contributed to making this well-crafted representation of The Long Now Foundation.

Last week we announced that Brian Eno is designing the ambient sound for the Long Now Salon as well as a dedicated light-painting installation for the space.

Brian is a founding member of Long Now’s Board of Directors.

Photo of Brian Eno by Alexander Rose

The Present

Posted on Monday, March 18th, 02013 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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ThePresent from m ss ng p eces on Vimeo.

The Present is a clock with an annual dial that was funded originally through Kickstarter by design collective m ss ng p eces. The inspiration for this clock seems to come from a similar place as the Clock of the Long Now.

This was one of those early blockbuster Kickstarter projects that reached 4x its fund raising goal. After a couple years figuring out how to produce these as a product, it has finally shipped and we just received ours. It has excellent build quality from what I can tell and auto-magically sets itself as soon as you put batteries into it.  Since we are only a few days away from the March Equinox ours moved directly to nearly the “3 o’clock” position in the middle of the green section (see pic below).  As we approach summer the hand will move into yellow, then reds for autumn etc.

You can get your own at


The Time Keeper

Posted on Wednesday, October 17th, 02012 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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One of the early ideas for the 10,000 Year Clock was to simply endow a family whose job it would be for 400 generations to just shout out the time every day.  I had no idea there was already someone like that… RIP John Votta.

“The Washington Square timekeeper was a link back to a very ancient tradition of people who both tell time and look out for the public good,”

The whole story at Washington Square News

YES Watch Father’s Day Sale

Posted on Wednesday, June 6th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Long Now’s 10,000 Year Clock will tell time not in hours and minutes, but by keeping track of the astronomical cycles underlying those units. We can’t predict how the calendar and timing systems will change over the next 10,000 years, but we know they’re likely to be built on top of the very same things we’ve built our system on: the rotation of the earth, the cycles of the moon, and the ebb and flow of light and dark throughout the years’ seasons. For most of human history, time wasn’t  a matter of digits ticking by, but rather a complex interplay of these overlapping rhythms.

The makers of YES watches seem to similarly appreciate this long-view of time-keeping. Into thoroughly modern digital timepieces with all the standard functionality you’d expect in a digital watch, they’ve incorporated a taste of our deep history with the sky. YES watches feature an analogue hour hand that rotates once each day, indicating along its way the rising and setting of the sun and moon.

It’s because of this resonance that we’ve carried them for years now in our Museum & Store in San Francisco, but between now and Father’s Day, Yes is also giving Long Now a 20% commission on each watch bought online through this link: For Father’s Day, they’ve created a new style of watch with two 24-hour bezels.

Bjorn Kartomten is the brains behind this innovative design. He worked with a global team of manufacturers to realize his idea of making a watch that tells modern time along side the cycles of the sun and moon. The hand movement is made in Switzerland, the sapphire crystal in Germany and the chip is made in Japan. The Yes Watches are used by film directors, photographers, adventurers and more – anyone who would like to to have an accurate understanding of the day and night’s natural cycles.

Time in the 10,000-Year Clock

Posted on Thursday, February 16th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Keeping time for 10,000 years isn’t tricky just because its hard to build a really durable clock. It also forces us to recognize and account for changes in things we normally think of as immutable, like the length of a day.

Long Now co-founder and lead designer of the 10,000-Year Clock, Danny Hillis, published a paper recently along with Rob Seaman, Steve Allen, and Jon Giorgini, with the American Astronomical Society.  The paper discusses the different kinds of time that the Clock needs to track in order to show accurate time for the next ten millennia, and how these systems interrelate.

The 10,000-Year Clock has both a pendulum (generating an approximation of absolute time) and is also synchronized to the sun at noon. Therefore the Clock must reconcile Universal Time, Terrestrial Time, and Barycentric Dynamical Time and also deal with unpredictable changes in the Earth’s rotation:

“The variation is caused by a variety of effects including tidal drags, shifts in the Earth’s crust, changes in ocean levels, and even weather… This creates an uncertainty in the average length of day of about 10 parts per million, an uncertainty of plus or minus 37 solar days over the design lifetime of the clock.”

So, not accounting for these variations could theoretically leave the Clock over a month off at the end of 10,000 years. Read the paper to see how each system is accounted for.

The paper was presented at a colloquium in October 02011 called Decoupling Civil Timekeeping from Earth Rotation. Attendees, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, discussed the paper and the 10,000-Year Clock. Notes taken during the conversation show that, while the technical success of the Clock’s durability is yet to be determined, its ability to inspire long-term thinking is already taking hold:

Neil deGrasse Tyson jested that the Long Now should put some signage on the 10,000 Year Clock so that a post-apocalyptic Earth will not think that the world will end when the clock stops working.