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Video: Making a 10,000-Year Clock
11/8/2012

The power design for the clock.
The power design for the clock.

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TJ McDermott
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10,000 years
TJ McDermott   11/8/2012 10:15:37 AM
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10,000 years is also the time span for which the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was supposed to maintain disposal standards.

Yucca Mountain didn't really have any moving parts that had to last 10,000; it simply had to not decay and release radiation.  10,000 years for a moving mechanism is much, much more difficult.

bob from maine
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Re: 10,000 years
bob from maine   11/8/2012 11:24:27 AM
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I own 2 grandfather clocks, one with a completely wooden movement and the other with a hard-brass movement. The wood movement clock has been in continuous operation except for moving and cleaning since the early 1800's and analysis suggests this should be able to run indefinitely with proper maintenance. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the modern brass movement, though getting parts is obviously much easier. I don't think the longevity of a device is necessarily a reflection of the quality of the components as much as it is a reflection of the mindset of the designer and builder.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: 10,000 years
Rob Spiegel   11/8/2012 11:37:37 AM
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10,000 years is a long time, TJ. I'm not sure this clock can really last that long, especially since it might still need winding. Yet the idea of trying is quite interesting.

naperlou
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Long is interesting, but...
naperlou   11/8/2012 12:02:57 PM
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Rob, while long term thinking is interesting, it is not really important to many engineering tasks.  One of the issues is that basic technology and needs change over time.  Sometimes over a short period of time.  What the Long Now Foundation reminds me of is Japanese companies.  When I was at a large company they sent us through a marketing management course of study.  I was a product strategist at the time.  The instructors were professors from business schools in Europe.  Many of them also consulted on the side.  They were always talking about the hundred year strategies of the Japanese companies they worked with.  Where are those companies now?  Most of them are floundering becuase of a number of external factors. 

Another example of where creating a device or system for the long term that will not work is in computer controlled systems.  I did the long term transition plan for a large military project.  They had it right.  They recognized that the technology was going to change and we worked to try to project it and then to come up with strategies to ensure that the system evolved over time and that the new could work with the old while taking advantage of advances in technology.

Some projects and technologies just don't need to last a long time, and it might be better if they don't.  Take the Space Shuttle.  The computers are very old and not very powerful by today's standards.  You might recall that the crew started using regular laptops on flights becuase they had much more power.  The problem with a lot of NASA projects is that they are not used to long term use that can be modified.  The expense in the acceptance testing.  The Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) are examples of projects that differ from previous projects. 

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
Rob Spiegel   11/8/2012 12:09:35 PM
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Good points, Naperlou. When I spoke with the team of engineers involved with the project, I asked why they building this clock. One of them quipped, "Because we're getting paid to do it." 

Even so, it's an interesting project.

naperlou
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
naperlou   11/8/2012 12:42:26 PM
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Rob, that's the difference between an engineer and a scientist.  I started out in physics (high energy, to be precise).  We looked down on the engineers.  Frankly, there were no job prospects in High Energy Physics.  Even the majority of my professors and graduate students ended up programming.  That helped me get a job and I eventually got a Computer Science degree.  I also have worked as a Systems Engineer for an aerospace company.  What I eventually was that engineering is a creative endeavour.  Pure science basically involves understanding what is.  Of course, it takes lots of engineering to create the devices used to obtain that understanding. 

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
Rob Spiegel   11/8/2012 2:48:56 PM
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Naperlou, I would imagine this project must involve both engineering and science. They will certainly need to determine what the materials might go through over 10,000 years. That study, I think, would be more a matter of physics than engineering.

Larry M
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
Larry M   11/9/2012 9:47:16 AM
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Naperlou wrote: "Some projects and technologies just don't need to last a long time, and it might be better if they don't.  Take the Space Shuttle."

Yes, but on the other hand, the over-60-year-old B-52 bomber is on what? its seventh generation of its electroncs?

naperlou
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
naperlou   11/9/2012 11:03:35 AM
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Larry, I know the B-52 well.  My father worked on the design of the bomb bay before I was born (and that was a long time ago). 

You bring up a good point, though, that is germain to the current defense budget discussion.  There are other systems, such as the KC-135, that are also very old and still working.  I am concerned, though, about the rerirement of a number of fourth generation fighters.  These could be updated and used going into the future for a fraction of the cost of new planes.  We should have the new planes, but we cannot afford the numbers needed.  The older planes, with avionics upgrades, could be flying well into the future.  This is not quite the same thing as making a device that, itself, should last 10,000 years. 

Larry M
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
Larry M   11/9/2012 12:18:33 PM
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I spent a long day last Febryary wandering around the Pima County Air and Space Museum (unclassified part of the famous Davis-Monthan "boneyard" Air Base) taking pictures. Some of the technology and its longevity are amazing.

Similarly, spent several hours on the USS Missouri in Hawaii in 2010. It also had about five generations of electronics between its construction in the 1940s and decommissioning in the late 1980s. Very easy to see where e.g., new radars were patched on. Sometimes the old system was left in place and the new one added alongside, suggesting that the old system had retained value.

Tool_maker
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
Tool_maker   11/27/2012 2:06:10 PM
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@naperlou: When ever I see these "Long Term Plans", I am reminded of a satirical article I read 20 or so years ago where a computer made future projections based solely on the data available at the end of the civil war. It got numerous things right, ie population growth and westward expansion, but failed miserably in others.

  The most humorous things I recall were what the two biggest problems would be. One: at the close of the civil war there were X number of horses per person and the population explosion would cause a similar growth in horses leading to the problem of growing enough grass to feed all of the horses required. The author had inventive ways in which to accomplish this, but problem #two was to be the biggest: What were we to do with all of the manure these horses would generate? I think he suggested huge quantities be shipped to Washington DC, but saw that even that would soon be full.

  In short, future technologies may render all long term plans equally irrelevant and foolish appearing.

Charles Murray
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Re: Long is interesting, but...
Charles Murray   12/11/2012 6:03:25 PM
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Good points, Tool_maker. One of my favorite quotes about computers is attrubuted to a Popular Mechanics article in 1949: "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."

Elizabeth M
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Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Elizabeth M   11/8/2012 12:26:19 PM
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Compelling project, to be sure, Rob! It's hard to wrap my mind around the idea of a clock that can last 10,000 years. Wonder what problems will arise over even a century or so given the changing conditions that will occur over that time, not to mention the fact that the designers will be loooooong gone at the theoretical end of the clock's life span. Kind of funny, too, that no one involved in the project will ever know if they were successful (ie, if the clock does indeed last 10,000 years). Interesting to ponder, though.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Rob Spiegel   11/8/2012 12:56:17 PM
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I agree, Elizabeth. The whole point of this project -- and other clock and library projects developed by the Long Now Foundation -- is to get people thinking about the future. Founder Danny Hillis was prompted to create the foundation because he thought people were not thinking enough about the future.

Charles Murray
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Charles Murray   11/8/2012 6:33:04 PM
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Maybe I missed it, Rob, but is there any sense of how accurate its timekeeping will be? If it's off just one second per year, it could be inaccurate by two hours and 47 minutes at the end of 10,000 years. If it's off one minute per year, it could be inaccurate by more than a week after 10,000 years.  

Zippy
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Zippy   11/9/2012 9:49:10 AM
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I think this is a thought-stimulating engineering exercise in terms of evalating durability, accuracy, etc.  Two observations;

 

1) Alan Weis wrote a great book called "The Earth Without Us," describing what would happen to the artifacts of human civilization if we all suddenly disappeared.  Geologic, biologic, and meterological forces wipe the slate in a (relatively) short time.

2) I don't want to discourage the project members, but the Stonehenge team is 4,000 years ahead of them in their real-time testing!   :)

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Ann R. Thryft   11/9/2012 1:34:20 PM
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You got that right about Stonehenge!
Assuming it's not destroyed in an earthquake or other natural disaster, over that period of time the clock will have to accommodate several changes in the length of various time periods--the day, for example--as well as shifts in the declination of various planets and the Moon. I wonder if all that's being considered.

Charles Murray
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Charles Murray   11/9/2012 6:35:49 PM
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It's hard to imagine, Zippy, but this clock will look like Stone Henge to someone 10,000 years from now.  

Charles Murray
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Charles Murray   11/15/2012 6:48:13 PM
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Good point about the Stonehenge team being 4,000 years ahead in testing. And they did it without any accelerated testing techniques!  

Scott Orlosky
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Scott Orlosky   11/18/2012 7:49:28 PM
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As I was reading through the posts.  I kept thinking - how about just making a sundial.  There are already a vast assortment of sundial arrangements which are easily adjustable for variations over the course of many, many years and then Stonehenge popped up in the thread.  Of course!  Not sure that a special 10,000 year clock gives us any more techology than Stonehenge does. Sounds like a vanity project to me!

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Rob Spiegel   11/12/2012 11:24:30 PM
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That's a heck of a good question, Chuck. Let me double back on these folks and see what they have to say.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Definitely interesting...but will it actually last?
Rob Spiegel   11/13/2012 10:31:55 PM
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Chuck, as it turns out, the clock is designed to orient itself to the sun at noon each day. That feature is designed to keep the clock accurate.

William K.
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A thousand year clock
William K.   11/12/2012 2:12:19 PM
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Making a clock to run for any great length of time without maintenance would be quite an achievement, given the multiple concerns of wear, dirt accumulation, and weathering. And if there is a chime system intended to sound daily, that means a lot more power will be needed. The challenge is that the weather will deliver an accumulation of dirt, and the dirt will get in the way of moving parts as it fills the motion clearances. Of course it is possible that the clock is being built in an exceptionally clean part of Texas, some area that has no dust or wind, but I sort of doubt that. It will be interesting to see if it even runs for one year. How about a more detailed report on the clock after it is finished, possibly including drawings or pictures describing how it captures energy, and how it moves.

Ratsky
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Weren't the Mayans first?????
Ratsky   12/11/2012 11:06:34 AM
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I can just imagine that 9,995 years after the completion of this project someone will postulate that this was the "Doomsday clock" and when it stops the world would end.....

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