Depending on the day, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is either the richest or second richest human on Earth. And while he’s trying to figure out how to use some of that money philanthropically, he announced today that construction has begun on the giant clock in the middle of nowhere that he put up $42 million to build. The 10,000 Year Clock is intended as a symbolic reminder that we should consider the long-term impact of our actions.
On Tuesday, Bezos tweeted a neat little timelapse video of the clock being assembled in a remote mountain in West Texas. Though Bezos’ money and resources bring attention to the project, it’s actually the long-held dream of computer theorist Danny Hillis and the Long Now Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to inspiring projects and ideas that take extremely long-term cultural development into account.
Bezos’ contribution to the 10,000 Year Clock consists of his substantial financial donation and supplying the mountain location where it’s being built. In 2011, he wrote on a website dedicated to the project, “as I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems.” This idea leads him to believe that “we’re likely to need more long-term thinking.” For now, that long-term thinking is going into a 500-foot cavern that a team drilled into a mountain that Bezos owns.
Once workers finish their task of assembling the gears, dials, levers, and pendulums that will make the clock run, it will only tick forward once a year. According to the plans, the clock’s chime generator will deliver a unique sequence of bell ringing every 24 hours. From there, the really long-term mechanics come into play.
Five “room-sized anniversary chambers” will each contain a different mechanical animation. 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. Bezos, Hillis, and the team plan to also create an anniversary animation for the 10-year cycle but its subject hasn’t been determined yet. 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.
“In the year 4000, you’ll go see this clock and you’ll wonder, ‘Why on Earth did they build this,’” Bezos told Wired in 2011. Many people will probably ask that same question in a shorter time frame. Obviously, $42 million could do a lot of good in the here and now. But it’s hard to argue about the value of a truly magnificent piece of engineering, executed at jaw-dropping scale, for little reason other than to inspire people. The pyramids probably seemed like a pretty big waste of time and energy back in the day. People still argue over what the hell Stonehenge is all about—maybe that was the point. Let’s face it, pretty much every momentous structure and wonder from history has been created at the whim of one or a few powerful megalomaniacs.
The public will purportedly be able to visit the Clock of the Long Now when it’s completed (no completion date has been announced), but Bezos’ warns the trip will take a “commitment.” He writes on the clock’s website that “the nearest airport is several hours away by car, and the foot trail to the Clock is rugged, rising almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor.” If you’ve got a pair of hiking boots, you know where to find Jeff on the clock’s anniversary, every year.