Jeff Bezos and the 10,000 Year Clock

One line stuck out to me when I read the Wall Street Journal’s recent tabloid-esque expose on Jeff Bezos’ journey from a bookish entrepreneur to wannabe Hollywood magnate: “He has spent $42 million on a friend’s effort to build a clock that will tick once a year for 10,000 years.”

Wait, what?

The 10,000 Year Clock

As anyone bored at their 9-5 would do, I quickly dove into an internet wormhole by typing into the Google search box “What the fuck is the 10,000 year clock?” That led me to the website of the clock itself, with a T.S. Eliot quote transposed above a picture of some mountain. Yes, this seems like exactly the type of project a tech zillionaire would throw $42 million behind.

10000 Year Clock

Here’s what the Clock team (yes, it’s a proper noun in this world) says about itself:

We are building a 10,000 Year Clock. It's a special Clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking. It's of monumental scale inside a mountain in West Texas. The father of the Clock is Danny Hillis. He's been thinking about and working on the Clock since 1989. He wanted to build a Clock that ticks once a year, where the century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. The vision was, and still is, to build a Clock that will keep time for the next 10,000 years. I've been helping Danny with the project for the last half dozen years. As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems. We're likely to need more long-term thinking.

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That mountain in West Texas they’re using to build it? Jeff Bezos owns it. To reach to space where they’re building the Clock, you’ll have to scale nearly 2,000 feet up the mountain. Construction at the mountain site is underway, and they’ve begun manufacturing the various parts of the clock as well.

Carved into the mountain are five room-sized anniversary chambers: 1 year, 10 year, 100 year, 1,000 year, and 10,000 year anniversaries. In addition to the planets and the Earth's moon, it includes the interplanetary probes launched during the 20th century. The chime generator creates a different bell ringing sequence every day for 10,000 years.

The one-year anniversary chamber will feature a model of our solar system, including interplanetary probes that were launched in the 20th century. At the same time each year, that chamber will come alive and run through its animation. The team plans to also create an anniversary animation for the 10-year cycle but its subject hasn’t been determined yet (email them your ideas!). The remaining chambers will be triggered on the 100-, 1,000-, and 10,000-year anniversaries and their contents will be decided by future generations. And once every millennium, a cuckoo will pop out of its hole, only to return to its lonely holding cell for another thousand years.

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Jeff Bezos wrote and signed the “learn more” page of the clock’s website, showing his involvement in the project. Here’s a video the team posted in 2011 of them installing the 500 foot vertical shaft of the Clock:

Bezos gave an interview to Wired in 2011 about the project, basically admitting that it’s a bit nuts. “Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” Bezos tells me. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can’t imagine the world — no one can — that we’re trying to get this clock to pass through,” Bezos said in 2011.

The Clock comes straight from the mind of Danny Sillis, who’s been thinking about it for over 20 years now, and spent 15 years designing it before getting to the manufacturing bit of the project. The Wired profile on the Clock shows an escapement made primarily out of titanium, meant to tick once every 10 seconds. A 300 pound pendulum regulates the rate at which the escapement ticks.

Bezos is famously a long-term thinker: Amazon didn’t turn a profit for years, and now posts record profits every month. His other pet project is Blue Origin, a company with its eyes set on space travel and colonization. But why fund the 10,000 year Clock? “Because it’s a challenging engineering problem, I’m also just delighted by it,” Bezos said in 2011. “It’s really never been done before at this scale. All of those technology challenges for me are titillating.”

Of course, the knock on Bezos will be “why fund this when there is so much pain in the world right now?” This isn’t an invalid argument. But the wonders of the world that exist to this day, that people travel around the world to see, that inspire a next generation’s hope, joy, and dreams, were built by megalomaniacs and visionaries similar to Bezos. And any mechanical watch lover knows the joy of owning a little mechanical wonder that has absolutely no utility in today’s digital world. Imagine that, but on the scale of a mountain — which, by the way, you also own.

If you’re interested, read the Wired piece in full. It highlights the characters, the engineering of the 10,000 year clock, and the vision for completing it. It’s really a fascinating piece.

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