Ask Hackaday: How Can You Build For A Ten Millennia Lifespan?

There’s been a lot of news lately about the Long Now Foundation and Jeff Bezos spending $42 million or so on a giant mechanical clock that is supposed to run for 10,000 years. We aren’t sure we really agree that it is truly a 10,000 year clock because it draws energy — in part — from people visiting it. As far as we can tell, inventor Danny Hills has made the clock to hoard energy from several sources and occasionally chime when it has enough energy, so we aren’t sure how it truly sustains itself. However, it did lead us to an interesting question: how could you design something that really worked for 10,000 years?


The first question might be why would you want to? We aren’t sold on the clock. But there are at least two easy answers for that: storing very bad things safely and generational starships. We are certainly generating nuclear and biological materials that need to be kept locked up for a long time. If we wanted to go to another star system today, we would have to build a ship that would get our descendants to even the nearest star. In both cases, things would have to last and either need no repair or be sustainable.

How Old is Old?

The clock appears to be mostly mechanical and we do have examples of purely mechanical things lasting a very long time, although not always in the best of shape. It doesn’t hurt that the clock ticks once a year.

The megalithic temples of Malta date back about 5,000 years — older than the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge. Dating back from around the same time is the Knap of Howar, an old Scottish farmstead and Newgrange, and Irish religious site.

Of course, those aren’t machines and they aren’t 10,000 years old. In Turkey, there are some ancient homes that are nearly 10,000 years old and some large megaliths, although they are hardly well-preserved. There are even parts of the Wall of Jerico that are about the same age.

For long-lived machines, the numbers are much worse. Some church clocks date back to the 1300s. That’s not even a blip on a ten millennia timeline. The oldest steam engine still around is even newer, dating to 1725. So building true machines to last on this scale is a relatively unproven idea. Granted, materials are better today, but then again things are more complex, too.

Problem #1: Power

This would be a big problem. It is easy to wave your hand away and call for nuclear power or batteries, but making those last a long time is an even bigger problem. True, nuclear batteries can last for a century or more, that’s still a far cry from 10,000 years. If you could make a reactor that lasted long enough, you’d still need to refuel it, although the half-life of uranium is in the millions or even billions of years (depending on the isotope), so that’s viable, but you’ll have to carry a lot and have a reliable way to refuel.

If you are Earth-bound, solar or geothermal or even wind might work. None of those would work well for an interstellar spacecraft, though. Molten salt batteries are known to have long shelf lives, but don’t usually last very long once activated.

At the University of Oxford, there are some bells that have been ringing on a single battery for nearly 200 years, but that’s a special and unusual case. So power seems to be a key problem. But it isn’t the only one.

Problem #2: Mechanics and Other Things that Age

Real-world parts wear. Springs get less springy. Magnets demagnetize. Electrolytic capacitors dry out. Metals in ICs electromigrate or grow dendrites. Moisture gets into packages. We don’t often have to deal with much of this because it happens over a long time scale to our normal usage. But those things — and probably more — would become problematic over a few thousand years.

Imagine a generation ship with switches. Mechanical switches. You’d have to carry a lot of spares or a shop for fixing or making new switches, along with the raw materials to do so. Could you do better? A touchscreen is probably too complex. What about an LED and a light sensor with a finger-sized hole? No mechanics, but you probably still won’t get that much life out of an LED, especially if it is on nearly all the time.

The nuclear waste vault is even more problematic because it should continue to function even if no one is around to take care of it. How do you leave a warning for the next wave of humans or cockroaches or whatever inherits what’s left?

Probably Not the Next Contest

At Hackaday, we love to spur innovation through contests. However, we don’t think we want to wait 10,000 years to judge your nuclear waste bunker, although time dilation might help with your spaceship if you can go fast enough.

Seriously, though, what kind of things would you do to ensure a design could run for a century? Or a millennium?  Or even 10,000 years? Is there a practical limit to how long an electronic device could last? Let us know in the comments.

We’ve seen old analog computers including the Antikythera mechanism, although they are in various states of disrepair. As for digital computers, WHICH was still operating last time we checked.

97 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: How Can You Build For A Ten Millennia Lifespan?

  1. And lets nog forget the largest enemy of all: us. Wars and chaos has a huge inpact on stuff and knowledge. Remember it took us some centuries to reinvent concrete. So put your ticking clock somewere people cant reach it easily, like buried on the borrom of a crater on the moon, for example tycho.

    1. Oh yeah, totally–in a big way, a lot of world history came to an end in the 1940s. It destroyed more records that a lot of people realize. It’s an enormous shame.

      Merely surviving the mechanical stresses of time and nature alone won’t last you 10,000 years. The likelihood of tampering over that time scale are 100%. So it needs to be able to maintain some kind of defense, or active backups or whatnot.

      Being extremely remote in some moon crater is a pretty good plan too, but then there’s always the chance that we’ll lose the ability to go there or forget about it entirely and never rediscover it. Which, although once again it might technically meet the goal of physically lasting 10,000 years, it would be the exact same effect as if it were completely destroyed by time.

  2. I read decades ago about the generational problem of storing nuclear waste.
    Among the things considered were sealing it underground in a desert, cover it with a large area of dark granite/stone, so it would be too hot (temperature) from sunlight for humans to linger there. Include large dark sculptures, such a gargoyles to also make the place undesirable. And have the sculptures through shapes/whistles/etc. make moaning sounds in the wind.
    That way, if civilization(s) collapsed, future explorers, not knowing our language(s) would get the message that this is a forbidden place.

    1. Yeah I’ve seen that little design document as well. It’s pretty ignorant–literally every idea they put forth would absolutely guarantee that future generations would be 100% determined to explore the area as thoroughly as possible until they found the great curse of nuclear waste. They wouldn’t be satisfied until they discovered it. Every few generations people would forget–or ascribe the warnings to myth–and try to explore it again. Fun for designers and architects, absolutely awful for the actual goal.

      Imagine if one of those structures you described already existed today, and we didn’t know its exact purpose. People from around the world would be racing to get to the bottom of it, and once a bunch of them died from a real-life version of the Pharaoh’s curse, we’d finally be like, “Ah okay, that’s what was going on.” Actually, you know what–people would probably assume the radiation was just another layer of spooky security for whatever treasure was buried there and keep frantically searching. For eons.

      Just put it somewhere random under the Nevada desert at the bottom of a borehole a kilometer deep, then collapse the tunnel. It won’t ever be a significant problem. And if somebody wins the radioactive death-lottery and actually digs it up somehow, they will know it for what it is–dangerous poison in the ground, not some mysterious otherworldly palace of the esoteric occult, lost to distant history, obviously designed to keep out prying eyes and trespassers, and probably full of treasures untold.

      “The nuclear waste vault is even more problematic because it should continue to function even if no one is around to take care of it. How do you leave a warning for the next wave of humans or cockroaches or whatever inherits what’s left?”

      So tired of that “problem.” How do we warn future generations of our toxic carbon waste, which is dispersed everywhere in our biosphere instead of contained to an incredibly remote location deep below the ground? Waste which has killed 10,000,000x more than nuclear power ever has? Waste that will literally kill us all long before the 10,000 year half-life of that nuclear waste gets a chance to elapse, at which point we’ll see if such far-seeing warnings were really necessary. What’s the half-life of dead oceans? Of a ruined atmosphere? Our emissions are shaping up to do more damage than a thermonuclear war, let alone nuclear power. If only we were half as thoughtful about that problem; as willing to ban it like Germany did after a mostly-bloodless accident like Fukushima.

      That kind of FUD stopped the adoption of nuclear power at a point in the 20th century when it could have saved us from true calamity. Just the other day there was a report that nature in the Chernobyl area is actually thriving more than it did when the zone was inhabited by people–because the benefits of the absence of people was in fact more than enough to completely offset the danger now posed by radiation. So now we know what a post-nuclear-catastrophe world would really look like–more verdant than now, since we’re so shitty. That’s so ridiculous. We should learn from that. We’re just focusing on the most spectacular, not the truly dangerous.

      1. Yes, climate change is an emergency that threatens civilization as we know it. We’re screwed, but no one seems to care all that much. Climate catastrophe could lead to nuclear war after some nations become destabilized. How about we focus on building a society that can last 10,000 years.

    2. All those ideas are operating on the myth that nuclear waste is a) going to be stored near the surface b) is deadly in even tiny amounts, c) has to be kept for millions of years etc.

      In reality, when you separate the high level waste from the low/medium level waste by reprocessing the fuel, the remaining high level waste has a short half-life. It dies down in a couple thousand years, which is short enough of a timespan that you can place a “rosetta stone” on the site to say “nuclear waste, do not dig” in multiple languages.

      For the remaining waste, that’s going to stay radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, but as a consequence of its very long half-life, it’s also not very radioactive and the main hazard would be the fact that it’s a chemical poison – heavy metal. You could stand on top of the pile safely, just as long as you don’t try to eat it.

      Thirdly, deep borehole disposal puts the waste down 3 miles into the rock, and if a future civilization that can’t read, hasn’t kept any historical records, and doesn’t understand radioactivity can tunnel their way down that deep in search of this “treasure”, all the way through bedrock and concrete, that’s going to be something short of a miracle.

      All in all, they’re fantastical ideas based on the mythical idea that nuclear waste is some sort of kryptonite that can’t be dealt with, and the “problems” of storage are exaggerated. It’s a kind of propaganda because these stories are told to reinforce the narrative, which is then used to build up stories about how impossible it is to store nuclear waste.

      In reality, we could simply drop all of it in an open pit in the middle of Siberia and call it a day – whoever comes close would obviously die, but that’s their problem. If you start to die, keep away. People are not going to start jumping in there like lemmings once they figure out that it’s deadly.

    3. What qwert and luke said. And then the question is also, SHOULD we care about future generations actually digging it up and not understanding why they are dying? Are the few that MIGHT die really that bad a sacrifice for the clean and pollution free energy it provides us? If we’re going to solve the energy crisis and stop our dependence on fossil fuels (We’ll have to, somehow, sooner or later) we’re going to have to be dicks to our future generations anyway. For instance solar cells and windmills require lots of rare earth minerals that are very hard to mine and cause massive amounts of highly toxic waste and tailings. Vastly more volume than what little nuclear waste we produce. And is leaving “toxic dirt” very close to the surface really so much better than leaving glassified nuclear waste buried deep under the desert somewhere?

      1. We dug up asbestos and radium, thorium, etc. before we understood that it’s hazardous stuff. There’s plenty other ways you can kill yourself by ignorance, and stupidity after you figure it out. E.g. tetraethyl lead. Should we put signs and guards on old asbestos mines as well? “Warning: Causes lung cancer.” just so people 10,000 years from now don’t make the same mistake?

        And, REE mine tailings are not just toxic, they are radioactive due to naturally occurring uranium, thorium, in the same deposits and guess what: the breakdown of those elements produces trace amounts of plutonium. It’s not a “man-made” substance like the propaganda videos tell you.

        The most commonly mined rare-earth source is Monazite, which typically contains Ce, La, Nd, Th and trace amounts of uranium. Because of this, countries which produce materials for electronics also have mountains of “nuclear waste”.

      2. I already wanted to say “yes” to your text. But solar cells do not contain rare earth minerals. They are mostly silicon, which is quite abundant. Windmills also do not need rare earth materials, also these magnets make them more efficient.

      1. “They proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these “ray cats,” the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away.”

        Problem: many places on earth are naturally radioactive. See Guarapari beach. People would figure out that the cats don’t mean anything, because we actually do tolerate some amount of radioactivity with little ill effect.

    4. Why should the granite stay hot (from sunlight) during the night? And why should this reduce curiosity? People already explored very extreme places (polar regions, deserts, …)
      I would try to seal it as durable as possible and dump it into a geological subduction zone like Marianna trench.

      1. This particular comment thread seems to have taken on a life of its own, and it’s contrary to the idea of the article. There are two objectives for building something that’s going to last a long, long time: one is to keep that thing away FROM future, possibly ignorant generations, and the other is to preserve something FOR them. The methods for each of these would necessarily differ. In the first case, finding inaccessible places that will remain inaccessible even with changes in climate is the key, with the additional challenge of preventing those things from entering the biosphere. But this is not very exciting – it is effectively trying to make something not exist. The subject of the article, though, was leaving something positive for our descendants – something that can inspire and intrigue them.

        To me, that’s the gist of the Long Now project – to build a “Tonka truck” for our grandchildren, which they won’t destroy the day they find it, and which is of more value to them than complete, than the materials it’s made from. Hopefully, even if it’s not in working order when they find it, its function should be clear enough that they realize that the moving parts are supposed to be doing something, and they can figure out how to make it move again. Look at what the discovery of the Antikythera machine did. Even though it (arguably) did not fall into the hands of a post-apocalyptic culture on its way back up again, its antiquity and sophistication has made it an object of wonder, causing people to study it, and a number of people to duplicate it.

        Heck, even the Apollo Guidance Computer has inspired its own duplication, even though it’s only fifty years old. In that case, it’s the use of obsolete technologies to do real-time computing that is the object of wonder, but that’s enough. Magnetic toroid “rope” ROM? The very notion of having to unravel a few wires and weaving new wires along different paths to make a software change is mind-boggling today.

        Of course, the builders of the Long Now would be especially happy if after thousands of years of being forgotten, their project is discovered still working, and by comparing its indicators with the contemporary positions of the stars and planets, found to have accurately kept track of the passage of time for millenia. But more than that, they have chosen not to do this with analog gear trains (like the Antikythera machine), but using a binary computing machine to do things like pseudo-random number generation, to demonstrate some of our current proficiencies. The point here being that this will be interesting, whether discovered by primitive people or by people for which there never was a “great fall” event.

  3. Don’t think how to make something super-reliable. Teach people to maintain it.
    Catholic Church is already 2000 years old and doesn’t get half as rusty as any Miata would.

    1. Hah, that popped up in a webcomic I follow recently.
      “I don’t believe in ‘maintenance free’ designs. It just means that when it DOES need maintenance, nobody remembers how.”

      1. This was a significant plot point in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series: the old empire built stuff so good nobody needed to repair it, so a thousand years later they had no idea how to do so and treated the job of maintenance tech as a purely religious function.

        1. The actual quote:
          “In the name of the Galactic Spirit and of his prophet, Hari Seldon, and of his interpreters, the holy men of the Foundation, I curse this ship. Let the televisors of this ship, which are its eyes, become blind. Let its grapples, which are its arms, be paralyzed. Let the nuclear blasts, which are its fists, lose their function. Let the motors, which are its heart, cease to beat. Let the communications, which are its voice, become dumb. Let its ventilations, which are its breath, fade. Let its lights, which are its soul, shrivel into nothing. In the name of the Galactic Spirit, I so curse this ship.”
          And with his last word, at the stroke of midnight, a hand, light-years distant in the Argolid Temple, opened an ultrawave relay, which at the instantaneous speed of the ultrawave, opened another on the flagship Wienis.

          And the ship died!

          For it is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works, and that such curses as that of Aporat’s are really deadly.

  4. I worked at the place that built that clock about ten years ago. They were starting development when I was there. At that time, they were planning on powering it with barometric pressure by having a the pressure differences between day and night power it. With the exception of the time keeping mechanism itself, which was tiny like an old alarm clock, the other parts mere massive. I remember metal samples being taken to the eventual location of the clock to see what the long-term effects of weather would be on them. I think the primary thing that was being looked for was corrosion but I suspect that they were also looking for material changes due to aging such as crystal structure of the metal or dimensional variations.

    1. This is fascinating. As a machinist and horologist, I deeply envy you for being able to see the beginnings of that clock, which has fascinated me since I first saw the concept.

      There is one timepiece made that almost is truly perpetual- and it runs indeed of of the barometric pressure differential between night and day- the Atmos clock by Jaeger Lecoultre.

      I have always wondered if that mechanical bellows mechanism would scale up effectively.

      I don’t believe that is what the clock uses now, can you comment at all on why or what they found in the study of that that invalidated that method?

    2. This had been done long ago, look at the atmos clocks. Clocks powered by barometric pressure and temperature changes are not new. Friction is your enemy as you don’t have a lot of power to turn things.

  5. I think we look to nature here. Nature doesn’t ensure its continuation by building to last forever, it repairs and it reuses. I’m sure by the mid-term future we’ll be able to process and reprocess the materials of a machine in order to renovate it. We can do that now with our hands and our minds, but we’ll automate it.
    Ten thousand years worth of power doesn’t seem like such an issue, the world has been around for much longer. I think a generational space craft would be obliged to use the same power source, i.e. nuclear fusion, both to sustain the enormous habitat required, the machines to maintain the whole structure, and to propel the vessel. Of course the reactors would be subject to the same kind of renovation as the rest of the systems. The generation ship of Theseus.

    1. I’m with this. There are (approximately) 5000 year old trees. That’s a mechanism that’s running continuously. If we really need a clock that lasts 10K years, genetic engineering is the way to do it, and plant a whole lot of them.

  6. Because of entropy, electrical and mechanical stuff cannot be considered reliable past a 10E3 magnitude of years.

    When we are able to master genetics and gene manipulation; that is, ‘play God”, then we overcome entropy by depending on self-repairing biological systems. But no system is self-sustaining on the order of 10E4 years, they will need to always be able to find food and energy.

    My SWAG is that any biological or mechanical or electrical system will succumb to entropy at the magnitude of 10E5 years.

      1. That’s because life on earth is biological, but not a system. It doesn’t exist for anything, or perform any function, it just happens as it may – and many times it has come very close to destroying itself.

        “System” has many meanings. Here it is obvious that it means something which works for a purpose, like a telephone system, rather than something which merely happens to be, like star system. Life in general is the latter kind of system – it doesn’t work for anything, it just happens because it can.

        1. I would suggest that Earth can be thought of a biological machine, made up of simultaneously competing and cooperating lifeforms, that either destroys itself, or ultimately converges on the goal of perpetuating life for as long as possible. The fact that we are discussing how to build multi-generational space ships highlights both how far we have come, and how far we have left to go.

  7. Love the idea, But I’d rather a clock that should work for shorter time but that would actually be useful for timekeeping.

    For a device like this close with such low power requirement I would think powered by the earths water cycle is likely most efficient. Put it in the right place and assuming the human race doesn’t ruin the planet entirely you can be sure some water will flow and unlike any form of electronic power generation and storage it isn’t likely to break well within a century. Will of course still wear and get less efficient before it eventually stops. But if you are keeping the movement speeds way down and design to have excess water overflow away from the workings rather than through the machine unnecessarily I would expect a very very long life.

    If it really must be deployable anywhere near earth, electronic and enduring I think solar, leydan jar/ceramic caps, and probably dusting off the magnetic core technique for ‘volatile’ memory. Extra long term data archiving via some form of punch card style mechanism on a substrate that will last.

    In a generation ship I would expect a full machine shop that comes very close to a complete closed loop. Probably carrying enough spare materials for a century or so (however long crossing between solar systems will take with a safety margin). As every solar system anywhere nearby at least should contain a good quantity of the most useful elements. And building to last ‘forever’ takes too many resources. Better to build a light switch in similar fashion to now using very little material and none of it hard to recycle than use lots of fancy very hard to make and recycle electronics. Even if they last twice as long it won’t be long enough, and it is considerably more than twice the effort to repair/replace them.

    Power over such a long time is most problematic and at any distance from a star pretty much has to be power from atomic sources (though maybe the background radiation can be harvested – I highly doubt it could supply enough energy at reasonable ship surface areas though).. I’d hope fusion becomes stable and usable for energy generation first as the lightweight atoms that seem most likely to be used are universally abundant (or at least expected to be) where fissionable fuels are far less abundant.
    If you design the ship right ‘spent’ fissile fuel still has lots of energy to give after leaving the first reactor. But even then building a reactor that won’t destroy itself over that time is well beyond us and building new ones so often is likely to require too many virgin resources. Active lifespan for a nuclear reactor now seems to be 50 years expected as a maximum.

    1. I disagree.

      At the current rate of climate change, we’re seeing rainfall patterns change within a matter of decades. I wouldn’t trust contemporary average rainfall to be constant anywhere for the next few millennia.

      Furthermore, I cannot image a mechanical system for harvesting power from water flow that would be more durable and reliable than a solid-state electric circuit. As you yourself point out, moving parts wear out. So do electronics, but if well designed they can be expected to last thousands of years.

  8. Over ten thousand years, events we consider rare in our lifetime become almost inevitable. Floods, earthquakes, lightning strikes, bombing raids, hailstorms, volcanic eruptions, insect infestations, political upheavals, etc. have to be considered, even in areas that have not suffered those types of calamities in the past five millenia.

    No human language has lasted ten thousand years. I suspect that the only place that has avoided war over that time period is Antartica.

    I don’t have a solution, but I can certainly appreciate the problem.

    1. And consider, how many statues/monuments have been destroyed over the past 2 centuries to make bullets/cannon balls.

      The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro was made from ceramic tiles to reduce the possibility of being scavenged for metal.

      1. The Clock of The Long Now absolutely made this one of the main ideas- they used materials that would not be likely to be scavenged or easily recycled, specifically thinking of humans chopping it up in a few hundred years, as a way of combatting against destruction by salvage.

        To my knowledge it is the only long term project that has taken this critical piece to mind

    2. >”No human language has lasted ten thousand years”

      Yet. That’s largely because we invented writing about 5,000 years ago. There was no way to preserve a language before then.

      Yet, enough language has been preserved even though oral tradition that we can translate many of the earliest writings. This isn’t easy, since they tend to be pictograms where you use drawings of things that sound the same as the word you’re trying to spell out, in that language which nobody has spoken for thousands of years.

  9. I wonder if astrophysics has an answer? Celestial bodies like the sun, moon, and planets are reliable “clocks” for millenia. Perhaps some sort of Stonehenge-like monument where the rocks are positioned to create shadows or alignments to indicate the time and date?

    For a millenial spacecraft, I don’t think any of our mechanical or electrical technologies have a chance of working without constant maintenance and replacement. Biology may be the only option. Build creatures that can live and reproduce in outer space?

    1. The Clock of the Long Now does use celestial bodies (the Earth and sun) to keep time. The clock is synchronised each noon when the sun is overhead by light focused through a lens onto a bimetallic actuator.

    2. Quantity and Replication is one obvious solution.

      Have the machine be built in massive quantities, rather than as a single point of failure. This allows a certain amount of failure over time whilst leaving some around.
      (Optionally) Have it be able to maintain itself. Be able to produce repair robots and replacement parts to keep itself going.
      Have it be able to replicate itself fully, including sourcing and processing the materials. Some machines would fail to source the materials and die, but hopefully some would continue. If a machine found a massive load of material, it could either replicate a lot of machines, or camp out nearby for generations.

      In the end you would end up with a system, rather than a machine.

      However for a hyper-generation (400 generations) starship, the replication sounds difficult, given by definition it would be going through the near-void of space. So the self-repairing aspect is critical, and you would need to provide the materials at the start of its journey (e.g., building the system inside a massive resource-rich asteroid, or pre-processing the materials).

      1. How large a sample are you thinking?

        Casio produce around 3 million F-91W digital watches per year.

        Perhaps we simply use a whole bunch of those individually sealed in a vacuum housing, or encased in mineral oil, so there is no oxidation of their part.

        Powered from a remote long half life isotope battery, a zamboni pile, or perhaps even from a geothermal source, and insulated from harmful radiation with a thick lead shield.

        Scatter enough around the planet and maybe one will survive the entropy of a 10,000 year wait. Better yet, strap it to the wrist of a paranoid android. ;¬)

  10. Mercury switches would be better than ordinary mechanical switches if you need something that lasts a long time, although I’m not sure about them lasting millennia. Centuries could be quite plausible.

    Overall, I’d probably focus more on using ceramics than metal; even stainless steel can have corrosion issues on that timeframe.

    But the biggest threat is people. Whether it’s war, vandalism, or thieves. A lot of the ancient Roman buildings weren’t destroyed by earthquakes or war – they had builders carry them off piece by piece because they didn’t want to go to the trouble of quarrying up more stone.

  11. Code a ‘clock’ into the RNA of virus that infects tardigrades? Harness orbital energies to build a ‘computer’ from orbiting bodies? Referenced to a neutron star clock?

  12. We already have man-made gadgets that will still be moving in 10,000 years: geosynchronous communication satellites.

    They won’t still be operating in 10,000 years, and they won’t be geosynchronous anymore, but they will still be there, orbiting at about the same period, give or take.

    The LEO satellites will all de-orbit within a human lifetime, but the GEO ones will be there forever. Pretty much.

  13. I have toyed with the idea of making a watch made entirely from crystals, including the springs (silicon hairsprings count and are obtainable now in the US) so that metal oxidation and fatigue is no issue, and it would physically last this long, unless destroyed.

    Whether it would still be capable of keeping time after that long is another matter. I doubt it.

    To those curious- there have been very rare examples of watches with plates of rock crystal (quartz), hairsprings of glass (though they devitrify over time… perhaps Schott Zerodur wokld work?), and one watch in the Beyer museum in Zurich that even had sapphire screws, and a sapphire pinion has been made by P.F. Ingold, about a century and a half ago.

    It is possible to make a timepiece entirely from crystaline materials, but noone has ever done it completely. It would physically “last” without degradation in atmosphere 10,000 years, I do believe. But some idiot would probably smash it eventually in a war.

    I just like the idea. Durable it would not be though!

    1. If we’re talking crystals, solid-state electronics have a better chance of lasting then anything mechanical…only problem is a reliable solid-state energy source.

  14. Well I was trying to comment on the idea of how to store hazardous waste,long term.
    Seems the new page format/reply linking doesn’t play well with script blocker .

  15. I´m stunned how narrow-minded and blinded by technology the point of the article is.
    10.000 years seems a pretty short view. How about a mechanism that can store data, duplicate itself, realize complex computations and still work even after millions of years ?
    Moreover it´s already invented,hard to beat, but perfectible.

    It´s called DNA.

    Just one (relatively) example, but there are many more:

    1. DNA replication can fail – cancer, mutate due to radiation. It denatures at high temperature – UAE got to 48C in June 12, 2019. Things that are biological can be wiped out by diseases, chemical or biological warfare.

      Storing data is easier than having something that can change states to keep track of time.

      There isn’t much point of the extra long life span if we don’t know if mankind can survive the next 50 years – climate change, disasters, wars etc.

  16. If no one screws with it the rock sundial I built might last that long. Nothing electronic or mechanical will. The sundial may not be super accurate all year long, but it has very little to go wrong.

    There is a big difference from a simple mechanical machine that has simple parts that are easily built or repaired to keep something going, even by someone with minimal skills, and something that will just continue to work without a hand on it.

    I hate to sound like an old fart, but you have to be around more than a handful of decades before you start to see how frail many things are.

      1. “How are you going to tell what year it is (not roughly, but the actual year number) from a sundial?”

        Since we Westerners have employed at least three different systems for naming the year over the last two thousand years, perhaps the real question is, why is that important? You can estimate the time it was built, from the fosill record of the extinction event of the ego maniacal monkeys that built it.

        1. I would think that historians would be interested in knowing how long ago things happened. Of course, if all your clock does is show what time and date it is right now, then it’s not of that much value. But if the clock shows the full date, then people are going to naturally put down what year it was when they added their bits of graffiti to the surrounding walls. Just look at the carvings on rocks and trees – lots of dates on those.

          1. There’s your answer, you date the sundial by the earliest bit of graffiti you can find.
            (This is a technique sometimes used by archaeologists).

  17. What about a different kind of contest? Rather than trying to make clocks (<1k years according to wikipedia) last 10k years, what if the contest was to make something that lasts 10k years last <1k (safe degradation of trash/plastics)? What about making something otherwise disposable in some small unit of time last 10x+ as long?

    1. Yes, no doubt, because you, a random internet commentard definitely knows better than the engineers working on this.

      KISS is a guideline, not a a limit. It needs to do the job it needs to do FIRST, THEN you keep it as simple as you can. Yes, there is a lot of extra parts, but it’s all designed so the clock itself can keep working, even if the goings and the large display unit no longer do.

      1. I’m not actually a random anything. I’m a very specific person, with specific skills. But the principle applies here, no matter who I am. There’s really no call to get personal about it. I was criticizing this project, not the people involved. If you have something to say about my COMMENT, please feel free.

    2. KISS is a special purpose tool. When you have a billion dollars and no chance of failure is acceptable, you keep things simple to keep out errors. Oftentimes those things don’t even last that long, but simplicity means they fail in predictable ways more often.

      In the real world, a two dollar optical sensor is probably better than a two dollar mechanical switch, and a decent automated algorithm is probably at least as reliable as an average untrained person. Keeping things simple spreads the complexity around, to highly trained operators, expensive materials, and large sizes.

      They might have decided there was no simpler way to do things that didn’t scatter some hidden complexity in a bad place.

  18. Keep the construction simple weight drive, pendulum control a clock could last until the end times, given regular maintained. The trick would be convincing the public it’s worth maintaining.

  19. 1. Power

    I suggest a fusion powered device using that big fusion reactor 93 million miles away. There is a fare chance it will be around in a 100 years. Solar cells are unlikely to last that time, but you could derive small amounts of mechanical/electrical from heat/cold changes

    2. Mechanical

    The problem is that the Earth is awash with corrosive chemicals such as oxygen and Dihydrogen monoxide :) The best way is to put them somewhere where they are unlikely to be affected. Therefore somewhere like the moon or deep space. Obviously this has its own issue. Cosmic rays, lubricant evaporation, cold welding etc, but these could be manageable

    1. You have a heatsource much closer to you…the Earth.
      Dig a couple of kilometers below surface and you’ll have enough of a temperature difference that even Seebeck effect devices would be useful.

  20. Need more data. You can spin a dial in space. Should keep the spin but will it remain precise? We can use sun dial but do we need dates also? We can use a spinning len in space that will focus sun ray on slowly spinnin dial burning dates every day. But again precision.

  21. I feel like you’re missing the point of the Long Now Clock. Brian Eno (one of the Long Now founders) has a great essay on the inspiration (, but the gist is – how can we attune people to really long time scales? Requiring human input / intervention is intentional, it is meant to force us to pay attention, and to allow us to actively participate over very long time periods. It’s meant to change our thinking – not us as in you and me, but us as in the species.

    All the ancient things we can currently point to are basically big piles of rocks, and the cultures that created them are gone. At best, we can guess what they were like or why they built these things, and while impressive, the objects are unlikely to re-ignite the culture that created them based solely on the structures they left behind. In the past, it was common to build these vast structures that took many generations to complete, but there are very few such examples today (the Sagrada Familia being one).

    Imagine instead that we discovered a 5,000 year old clock that was *still ticking,* complete with instructions, repair parts, and a library of knowledge. Imagine that we had *already* been maintaining such a device, built by, say, the Sumerians, and that it provided a continuity to our culture and our thinking. Now you begin to see the power in the idea.

    Someone above mentions Anathem, which absolutely comtemplates the question, what if knowledge were our currency and our lodestar, what if our modern culture was thousands of years old? You can’t help but be captivated by the book and its ideas. But how would you start such a culture? That, in my mind, is the point of the Clock of the Long Now – to jump start long term thinking.


    1. This is exactly the point. It’s not a need or requirement for a clock that will still be working in 10,000 years, but instead an exploration about what is necessary for such a thing to exist. It’s not just an engineering project, it’s a sociological and artistic project too.

      (Anathem was written by Neal Stephenson after his experience working with the Long Now folks, that’s why clocks are central to it, and why it keeps coming up in discussions about this clock).

  22. This article keeps vacillating between ‘thing’ (any material entity?) and ‘machine’ (anything to translate one kind of movement into another) and sometimes even ‘information’ seems to not be out of bounds. That opens the the applicable range so wide it gets useless. Anything we observe now could be said to apply some way or another … Pyramids of Gizeh? -> Thing that points roughly ‘up’, age 4 ka, still works … That rock right there -> thing that is heavier than a helium atom and lighter than planet earth, age 10 Ma, still works … this 1 B$ platinum rod in vacuum? -> thing that is exactly 10^10 atoms long age 1 a, one atom got loose, FAIL … Rock wins. Yay.

  23. Dug into a mountain (check)
    built giant machine of some kind (check)
    Has no one here played Dwarf Fortress?

    It’s probably powered by weredorfs walking back and forth over pressure plates, or some kind of steam/lava powered system…

    1. Rockefeller – extremely rich man – great philanthropist You can’t take it with you, you know. :-) Then there’s Bill Gates who’s already givng money away. Not all super-rich hoard their wealth forever, and even those who aren’t technically philanthropic, they still generate lots of jobs. Someone’s gotta build and maintain their mansions, cars, plains, yachts, rockets, and space condos. Then there’s people making exotic food and clothes for them, and a whole spectrum of services they can provide. Money must flow, and flow it does. (especially when it ends up in the hands of less disciplined inheritors – thoughts of Toad from “Wind In The Willows” comes to mind :-) )

  24. I really do think you CAN use magnets in constructing a 10,000 year device as long as they never end up in extremely “stressed” environments to help them decay. Isolated with little opposing forces permenant, especially “hard” magnets like neodymium ones should last practically forever. They would have to be sealed up nicely, however. With magnets at our disposal and the use of diamagnetic materials to add stability we could greatly reduce loads on physical bearings and forces needed to make such a machine move. In fact we’ve seen passive levitation in that context but it’s hard to imagine the equilibrium lasting for millenia, I’m not even sure about years. I’ve never built one to see how long the stability lasts. Regardless, it sure could extend the life of a jewel bearing. :-)

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