The Long Now Foundation – Museum and Store

The large photograph on the wall below is the clock prototype now on exhibit in the London Museum of Science.

A platform in the museum’s main space displays a mechanism called the solar synchronizer, which resolves the difference between absolute time and solar time. As the label explains, without the synchronizer this difference between the two ways of measuring time would result in the clock’s time drifting from year to year because of eccentricities in the orbit of the earth around the sun and the tilt of the earth’s axis. At noon, local time, a beam of light strikes the large lens, which heats a length of memory wire that contracts when it reaches a certain temperature. The contraction pulls a lever that strikes a bowl gong, producing a certain tone. In the future the lever will be attached to the clock, the orrery, and the chime generator.

Shown above is a ten-foot long model of the chime generator. Danny Hillis, the clock’s designer, created this machine to ensure that visits to the clock would be sonically memorable. The turning of the array of Geneva wheels causes a series of ten Tibetan brass bowl gongs to sound in the more than 3,650,000 combinations required to ring out a different sequence of tones each day for 10,000 years. Brian Eno, a foundation board member, worked out the sounds of the gongs. Eno released a  CD titled, January 07003, that explores the possibilities of the chime generator. However, he did not use these bowl gongs to create the music.

Above is a two-foot tall version of the first prototype for the clock carved in plywood. Hillis wanted a form that would honor mechanical computers and time pieces of the past. Geneva wheels like those in the layers of this prototype were standard components of clocks. The Geneva wheel is a mechanism that translates the continuous rotation into the  intermittent rotary motion that occurs in the ticking of a clock.

Photograph courtesy of The Long Now Foundation

In addition to the display of apparatuses related to the clock project, the museum also has an exhibit of the Rosetta Project. This micro-etched nickel disk has room for over 2,500 languages recorded in its 15,000 pages of text. Why would this disk be a desirable artefact?

It turns out that our digital age is rife with discontinuities–black holes–so that although our information storage capacity is vaste, historians are likely to label our time the digital dark age because the system’s constant technical innovation has been accompanied by the constant loss of instructions for use. Among the losses will be thousands of languages, perhaps 90% of humanity’s spoken languages.

The Rosetta Project addresses this issue by collecting, naming, and sorting linguistic materials. Results of this effort are displayed on a wall and accompanied by a sound dome, which allows viewers standing in front of the wall of written texts to hear examples of the languages in the collection. The web site, permits people to view the pages of the Rosetta Archive and correct, comment on, or submit materials.

Other components of the clock that represent steps in the process of its development are displayed with explanatory labels. Visitors should not hesitate to ask members of the staff for more explanations if their questions are not addressed in the labels. The exhibits in this museum wll take many of us into new territory; we need guidance to find our way.

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