Close up image of the stainless steel gears of a clock.

The 10 000 year clock has a lot of moving parts. Image: Michel

Time keeping machines aren’t always built to last, but some do manage to stand the test of time. The Cronulla Clock Tower houses a clock that’s almost 250 years old, for example; the clock in England’s Salisbury Cathedral is still ticking 630 years after it was built.

But there’s a group of people aiming to put these clocks to shame. Buried deep into a mountain in the United States desert, there’s a clock that should keep ticking for 10 000 years.

It takes a lot of engineering to keep time for ten millennia. For one thing, you will need a source of power that will always be available. This clock uses a power source we can be sure will always be around – changes in temperature.

Every day, as the environment warms up, special parts of the clock expand. Every night they shrink again as the air cools. This movement is enough to keep the timekeeper ticking.

The team behind the clock’s design has also spent a lot of time thinking about rust. There are some metals that don’t rust, such as gold, but they also tend to be very valuable.

So to deter thieves, the gears are made of stainless steel. Over 10 000 years, this material will no doubt still rust a bit, so the gears are built with some wiggle room between them. That way, a small amount of rust won’t gum up the works.

There are other surprising challenges that other short-lived machines don’t have to worry about. When two pieces of metal are touching for many years, they can become stuck together. This could be a catastrophe for slow moving gears. So some moving parts in the clock are made of stone or ceramic materials.

The 10 000 year clock has been under construction for many years. Recently, the team have started installing the clock into its purpose built home – an underground chamber drilled into the heart of a mountain in Texas.

We will all be long dead before this remarkable clock marks its 10th millennium. Will it still be ticking? We can only hope.

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3 responses

  1. Greg Avatar

    Not too sure of the point of this apart from pride in constructing something that may stand the test of time (pardon the pun). How accurate is it going to be after 10 000 years, I guess it will rely on somebody or something to keep correcting it as time goes by even if it doesn’t require a battery change. IMHO the makers of this clock and its housing would have been better to put their time and money towards solving some of the worlds problems or advancing our scientific knowledge rather than building this white elephant.

  2. Greg Avatar

    I may have been a little harsh with my criticism of the clock builders pride and joy. I wonder if it indicates the year, decade and century. There would certainly be some slow moving cogs in the mechanism if it does.
    I was fascinated by the story of H1 and H2 that played out hundreds of years ago and I wonder if that was part of the motivation for designing this clock. However back then accurate timekeeping was a matter of life and death for the worlds seafaring navigators and the development of the chronometer that followed from H1 and H2 was one of the most important technological advances of the time. The same cannot be said of this millennia clock, it is at best a curiosity but I do admire the time, effort and commitment that the makers of this clock have given to their project.

    1. David Avatar

      Hi Greg,
      I think the clock will be indicating minute and hour, and has chimes once a day as long as you wind them up. It also has special animations, kinda like cuckoos. there’s one that goes annually, one every decade, one every century, one each millennium, and one that goes once every 10 000 years.

      It also has some pretty clever error correcting mechanisms – it uses a pendulum for hours and minutes, but it has a correction mechanism that uses solar measurements to make sure the time doesn’t drift out of whack too much.

      It’s not a groundbreaking scientific apparatus, but it is an impressive piece of engineering, and it’s also a very bold artistic statement. And I reckon it’s pretty cool.

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