Works in Progress - Winter 2014

Big Time


By Tom Bentley


Time is a slippery concept, perhaps more disposed to metaphor than mechanics. But a 200-foot-tall timepiece being built inside a mountain in West Texas will do justice to both, and it is expected to run for 10,000 years.

The concept, design, and execution are a collaborative effort sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that invites us to consider a clock that embodies “the long now of centuries,” a means to envision an ongoing future. Writes counterculture guru Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog and a Long Now founder, “The point is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time.”

A working prototype was completed in 1999, and construction of the actual timepiece began in 2010 in the Sierra Diablo, a seismically stable and appropriately arid range. The land belongs to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and a clock backer to the reported tune of $42 million. The primary materials are marine-grade stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic; just one of the clock’s 20 horizontally stacked gears weighs 1,000 pounds. To date, a 500-foot vertical shaft has been drilled; next, a robotic saw will cut spiral stairs into its face.

After a long trek on foot from the desert floor (to weed out the merely curious from dedicated time enthusiasts), visitors will enter a tunnel and wind a wheel that will resemble a big turnstile, triggering the display of the correct time on the clock’s eight-foot-diameter face, the viewing of which will require an additional climb. Absent human effort, the clock will store and run on thermal energy derived from day-night changes in mountaintop temperatures.

Although there’s no scheduled completion date, those associated with the project seem certain that time is of the essence.

Tom Bentley is a freelance writer in Watsonville, Calif.

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