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Slivers of Ticks, and Tatters of Tocks

July 23, 2008 at 1:44 pm

I love clocks.

The Long Now Foundation is trying to build a monumental clock that will run for 10,000 years. It's part of an overall effort to promote thinking on scales of deep time -- far longer than human lifetimes, longer even than the lifetimes of nations and civilizations.

It's an interesting problem. Among other things, such a Clock of the Long Now needs to be maintainable with perhaps nothing more than bronze age tools: who knows what the local situation might be in the year 9823? It also needs to be easily understandable: future caretakers should be able to deduce the principles of operation by observing the clock. What good would an instruction manual (carved, say, into titanium) do our morlock/eloi descendants? The language they speak (assuming they have language, assuming they're literate) in the year 10,000 almost surely doesn't exist right now. (This is one of the issues raised by Yucca Mountain, too. How do you design a pictograph that will clearly say Danger: Radioactive Zombies! to anybody who ever sees it, for thousands of years?)

I'm not convinced the project will work -- I don't have much faith in humanity's ability to think in the long term, much less its ability to physically wind a clock regularly for the next 10,000 years -- but it's neat nonetheless.

And it gets me thinking about clocks. I love clocks. A good clock is a piece of art as much as a piece of precision engineering. For centuries, throughout much of the world, being a horologist meant being one of the most highly-skilled artisans a person could know.

Timepiece as Art

Here's one that spells the hour out of an assortment of the hands from many other (smaller) clocks. How cool is that?

And here's one that starts running when you break the container. Like christening a ship with a champagne bottle, it invites you to launch your future from a sharp, shattered now of your own choosing.

Timepiece as Statement

At some level, aren't all human clocks a statement about senescence? Like this very depressing (but eye-opening) lifetime clock.

On the other hand (heh, I kill me) the right wristwatch can say, "I'm a fabulously wealthy vampire". (That's right: $30,000 $300,000 for a watch that tells you whether it's night or day. That's all it does. Even more mind-bloggling? These things sold out when they were first unveiled.)

Timepiece as Perspective

The world will keep spinning whether or not I remember to set the alarm clock. But it's easy to forget.

Besides, concepts like "6:00 in the morning" and "2:41 in the afternoon" are artificial constructs that exist solely because of the magic of consensual reality.

Sundial as Innovation

Sundials must be among the oldest means of telling time. Sundial obelisks have been found in the Babylonian archeological record, and I'll bet the practice of marking the passage of time by shadow movement goes back ever further. Even so, sundials are surprisingly, fascinatingly complex. Especially in light (heh, I'm doing it again) of what a simple idea the sundial represents.

After 5500 years, there's still room for innovation. Like the bulbdial clock. How neat is this? Part analog clock, part sundial. Lovely.

But I'd have to say my favorite sundial is digital. No, that's not an illusion. Yes, the numbers actually change as the sun moves. And no, it has no moving parts. That's not an LCD display! The digits are formed by sunlight shining through a carefully constructed (and calculated!) mask.

Beat that, ancient Sumerians.


Richard July 23, 2008 at 5:58 pm
Really well-researched. As your professional fact-checker, I must point out that according to your link the vampire watch cost $300,000 and not $30,000 as you wrote here. I wouldn't buy that junk for $30K but for $300K I might think about it. I'd want to polish it up with some Brasso, though. That thing looks caked in dried blood. Also, you left out the orrery. That thing is just as good as a 10,000 year clock as long as there are still internets in 10,000 years. And Flash plug-ins. But I'm sure those things will stand the test of time.
Ian July 23, 2008 at 6:36 pm
Duly corrected, sir. As for the orrery, I consider that a 26,000 year clock. Those guys at the Long Now Foundation are underachievers.
E J Frost July 24, 2008 at 12:04 pm
Wow, and I thought my addiction to Popular Science was . . . uh, huh. Anyway, just catching up with your blog. I'm impressed by your close miss, but I have to wonder whether the superpowers have ever manifested?
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