Big Time

Prototype clock face (Rolfe Horn, Long Now Foundation)
Prototype clock face (Rolfe Horn, Long Now Foundation)


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.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Tom Bentley is a freelance writer in Watsonville, Calif.


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