Category Archives: Time

The Clock of the Long Now

The Science Museum’s curator of time, David Rooney, reflects on the ‘Clock of the Long Now’, a prototype of which is on show in the museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. David will be talking about clocks, speed and slowness at this month’s Science Museum Lates.

‘Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase’. This analysis of society at the end of the twentieth century was written in 1998 by Stewart Brand (born 1938), writer, inventor and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Brand, together with computer designer Danny Hillis (born 1956) and other prominent fin de siècle thinkers, had become increasingly concerned that the year 2000 had come to be seen as a temporal mental barrier to the future. Brand explained: ‘Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries’.

Hillis’s proposal was to build ‘both a mechanism and a myth’, a monumental-scale mechanical clock capable of telling time for 10,000 years—if it was maintained properly. Such a clock would prompt conversations about ‘deep time’, perhaps becoming a public icon for time in the same way that photographs of earth from space taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968 have become icons for a fragile planet in boundless space (It was partly due to Brand’s agitation that NASA released earlier satellite-based photographs of earth to the public in 1966).

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission.

Earthrise, a photograph of the Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. Credit: NASA / SSPL

In 1996, Brand and Hillis formed a board of like-minded friends. Calling themselves ‘The Long Now Foundation’, the organization’s title sprang from a suggestion by musician and composer Brian Eno that ‘The Long Now’ could be seen as an important extension of human temporal horizons.

In this scheme, ‘now’ was seen as the present moment plus or minus a day, and ‘nowadays’ extended the time horizon to a decade or so forward and backward. However, the ‘long now’ would dramatically extend this ‘time envelope’. Since settled farming began in about 8000 BCE, the futurist Peter Schwartz proposed that the ‘long now’ should mean the present day plus or minus 10,000 years—‘about as long as the history of human technology’, explained Hillis.

The design principles established for the clock laid down strict parameters for its construction. With occasional maintenance, it was thought that the clock should reasonably be expected to display the correct time for 10,000 years. It was designed to be maintainable with Bronze Age technology. The plan was also that it should be possible to determine the operational principles of the clock by close inspection, to improve the clock over time and to build working models of the clock from table-top to monumental size using the same design.

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

In 1997, a small team of expert engineers, mechanics and designers based in San Francisco, led by Alexander Rose, set about constructing a prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, as the project became known. Driven by the power of two falling weights, which are wound every few days, the torsional (twisting) pendulum beats twice per minute, transmitting its time through an oversized watch-escapement mechanism to the heart of the clock, a mechanical computer.

This computer, conceptually linked to the machines of nineteenth-century polymath Charles Babbage, operates once every hour, updating timekeeping elements within the dial display, including the position of the sun, the lunar phase and the locally-visible star field. The slowest-moving part of this display indicates the precession of the equinoxes.

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

Clock face of the Clock of the Long Now. Credit: Rolfe Horn, courtesy of the Long Now Foundation

As the designer of some of the world’s fastest supercomputers in the 1980s, Danny Hillis said in the 1990s that he wished to ‘atone for his sins’ of speeding up the world by designing the world’s slowest computer for the Clock of the Long Now.

This range of tempos reflects the Foundation’s idea of ‘layers of time’ in human existence. The fastest-changing layer is fashion and art; a little slower is commerce. Infrastructure and governance take still longer to change. Cultures change very slowly, with nature reflecting the slowest tempo of all. ‘The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize’, explained Brand. The Foundation believes that an understanding of the opportunities and threats embodied in these layers of temporal change is crucial in correcting humankind’s apparent short-sightedness.

These ambitions and ideals were expressed eloquently in the finished prototype clock, which first ticked in San Francisco moments before the end of New Year’s Eve 1999. It was then moved to London, where the Clock of the Long Now had been selected as the final exhibit in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, opened by Her Majesty The Queen in 2000.

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, on display at the Science Museum

Meanwhile, the Foundation continued to build further prototypes, refining the design of the clock’s several constituent subassemblies in preparation for the construction (now underway) of a 10,000-year clock inside a mountain in western Texas, near the town of Van Horn. The Foundation hopes to build several ‘millennial clocks’ over the course of time, and a site for another has been purchased atop a mountain in eastern Nevada, adjacent to Great Basin National Park.

By its nature, the clock is both a conclusion—of a long process of human thinking, making and acting—and a starting point, for a long future, the contents of which are uncertain, the opportunities of which are infinite. Stewart Brand observed, ‘This present moment used to be the unimaginable future’.

As a symbol for the past, present and future of human ingenuity, the Clock of the Long Now is a fitting device to represent the modern world and all of its milestones. As Danny Hillis has said, ‘Time is a ride—and you are on it’.

David Rooney (@rooneyvision)

How to clear your calendar (the extreme way).

The 29th of February, a Leap day, is coming up again. On this mysterious date 20- year- olds celebrate their fifth birthdays and so on. What has this got to do with this beautiful armilliary sphere , on display in The Science Museum, London?


Armiliary sphere by Sisson (credit: Science Museum)

The sphere was made in 1731 for Prince Frederick , son of George II,  who died before his father, hence he never came to the throne. Both he and Princess Augusta, were interested in what we would now call science. They commissioned this instrument, which shows the planets circling the Sun, from Jonathan Sisson, a leading London instrument maker. The ‘horizon ring’, the horizontal ring  round the instrument, is engraved with the days of the year and the signs of the zodiac.

However, the first day of spring, or first point of Aries, is not marked as the 21st of March but the 10th. The  equinoxes, when the days are the same length as the nights, had been moving backwards ever since Julius Caesar set the calendar in 46BC. This was because the 29th of February, coming every 4 years, was too frequent. In 1752 , in the reign of George II, the UK moved to the new calendar, when the 29th Feb was not quite every four years. In a stroke we lost 11 days-the 3rd to the 13th of September.  The painting by Hogarth ”An Election Entertainment’ has suggested there may have been riots over this loss, but there is no evidence.

 In some ways the UK was a conservative country and we were slow to make the change to the new calendar. In the 21st century precision timing rules our seasons.

A Royal Execution – Part 2

My post on January 21st marked the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI. Clearly, January was a bad month for European monarchs historically, as the 30th marks the anniversary (the 362nd!) of the be-heading of another flamboyant ruler – Charles I of England – in 1649.

Charles I pendant

Pendant with a portrait of Charles I (Science Museum)

The battered little heart-shaped jet pendant amulet above commemorates this particular royal execution. It would have been worn as a piece of mourning jewellery and, like other memento mori, a reminder of death and the transience of one’s own life. But in featuring an image of Charles I the wearer was also making a political statement in perpetuating the memory of the king and the royalist cause. Such pieces, in a range of designs and materials, began to be produced and worn by loyal supporters from around the time of his death on into the Restoration period.

Reverse side of Charles I pendant

Reverse side of Charles I pendant (Science Museum)

But take a closer look at the back of the pendent and there seems to be a clear error. Atop a crudely engraved skull is the date “JANUARY : THE : 30 : 1648 :” – which is a whole year too early.

This discrepancy can be easily explained. In England, prior to 1752, while January 1st was considered by many to be ‘New Year’s Day’, the start of the civil or legal year was actually… March 25th.  As such, under this ‘Old Style’ of dating, his January execution date was recorded as having taken place in 1648. However, following the formal adoption of the ‘New Style’ of dating through an Act of Parliament, the date is now generally referred to as 1649.

Time travel – for the hard of hearing?

In the last few days, an awful lot of web space has been devoted to the lady ‘time traveller’ filmed in 1928, who appears to be chatting away on a mobile. 

Of course back then, the film crew were focusing on a Charlie Chaplin premiere, rather than splits in the space-time continuum. But through the eyes of those living in 2010, where mobile phones are omnipresent, the first reaction of many is to reach a fantastical conclusion.

Alternative readings of this silent clip have quickly appeared. The most popular being that she’s using a hearing device – possibly a Siemens carbon amplifier.  The hand position looks right… but who’s she talking to?

Ardente hearing aid

Ardente carbon hearing aid (Science Museum)

Keeping with carbon hearing aid theme, could she be wearing a device like the one above – one of several designs in our collections. Many include palm-sized microphone units, often attached to a cord around the wearer’s neck.  She could be adjusting the volume by talking into it.

Compact ear trumpet

Compact ear trumpet (Science Museum)

Or maybe it’s something more old-fashioned like this small, flat ear trumpet. It is British, but typical of compact ‘mobile-sized’ models in very common use just a few years earlier. The ear-piece turns in at 90 degrees to the body with the device held alongside the cheek. 

Unless identified as a long-gone great aunt, we’re unlikely to find out precisely what she was doing. 

She’s definitely talking though. Did the cameras make her nervous? Or is she manoeuvering around for a better signal – oblivious to the total lack of service providers and phone masts?

Maybe she was just talking to herself. A lot of people do. But with all respect to the lady in question, when it comes to time travellers I kind of hope they’ll look as out of place and time – and as cool – as the mystery guy in shades who turned up on a Canadian Museum site a few years back.

Now, where did he come from?

Winding the Wells

One of the highlights of a visit to Wells Cathedral is seeing the oldest surviving clock face in the world, in the north transept. Above the face, jousting knights on horseback do battle, with one unfortunate being knocked over. Looking on, a figure called Jack Blandifer chimes bells each quarter-hour. Originally the knights charged every hour, but due to tourist demand the display was modified in the 1960s to allow a shorter joust to happen every 15 minutes. The knights switched from horsepower to electric power. Here’s a video.

A 1961 travel advertisement for Wells (NRM / Science & Society)

Other parts of the clock remained hand-wound, carrying on a tradition of over 600 years. It’s a time-consuming job and the clock is now going to be wound automatically.

However, the original medieval clock from Wells Cathedral is still wound by hand. The mechanism, which was installed in the cathedral in 1392, was replaced in 1837. It came to the Patent Museum in 1871, and has been part of the Science Museum’s collections since 1884. Currently on display in our Measuring Time gallery, it’s the second-oldest working mechanical clock in England, after the one in Salisbury Cathedral (although that is not regularly run).

A detail of the Wells clock (Science Museum).

The daily job of winding the clock is done by Richard from our Conservation team. Each morning, he winds the clock’s three gear trains (one would have controlled the interior and exterior clock faces, one the hour actions and one the quarter-hour actions). The whole process can take up to half an hour and Richard says it’s a very good workout! Read an interview with him here.

Fast hands: Richard winds the Wells (Alison Boyle).

The clock keeps very good time, only losing a few seconds per day. And our Conservation team keeps other clocks in the gallery running too – more about that in a future blog.

Space and Ti(e)me

It’s been an astronomical few days: The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society appeared on the radio to talk about all the big scientific truths that, apparently, ‘we’ll never know’, we celebrated the Summer Solstice, we saw Dr Who at Stonehenge, and - last Thursday - the Director of the Taipei Astronomical Museum came to the Science Museum.

As a parting gift he presented me with a tie depicting the Sun and planets. I had come to work in suit and open collar shirt so I was able to don it immediately much to his delight.

Ties (left to right) Japanese Space Agency, HOTOL project, Hubble Space Telescope, Taipei Astronomical Museum, European Space Agency, Huygens mission

Ties (left to right) Japanese Space Agency, HOTOL project, Hubble Space Telescope, Taipei Astronomical Museum, European Space Agency, Huygens mission (Doug Millard, 2010)

I’ve acquired several space ties over the years and worn all of them but, like other items recently discussed on this blog, there is also good reason for adding them to the Museum’s collections.

Wearing or giving a tie makes a social statement. Many a historian of science argues that we can understand the scientific process better by studying the social world of the scientist, so why shouldn’t this include studies of their tie-wearing world?

The tie in 21st century science tends to be reserved for official occasions with most practising scientists working in open-neck shirts and tops. Wearing a ready-made noose in the laboratory or workshop might not be the best plan…

Scientist sporting tie (and pipe), 1970

Scientist sporting tie (and pipe), 1970 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I discovered we do already have some neckties in the Collections including those worn by staff members of the Royal Train, one made especially to mark the third Millennium which is adorned with stars, space rockets and a quote from Einstein: (‘I never think of the future. It comes soon enough’).

Millennium Tie with Einstein Quote

Millennium Tie with Einstein Quote (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Maybe we should acquire one of Dr Who’s bow ties too, despite the Astronomer Royal reminding us that the time machine will likely remain forever fiction.

Electric time

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of radio time signals. These days, we’re used to the familiar sound of the six pips on the BBC, and we can buy cheap quartz clocks and watches that get magically set right every day by distant transmitters, such as the British service from Cumbria.

Junghans 'Mega 1' radio-controlled wristwatch, 1990 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Whilst experimental radio time transmissions started in the late nineteenth century, it was in May 1910 that Paris’s Eiffel Tower was used to broadcast the world’s first official regular radio time signal (more in Peter Galison’s excellent book).

Eiffel Tower sheet music, c.1888 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Time-by-radio is just one aspect of a revolution in timekeeping that’s taken place over 150 years - the application of electricity.

Electric horology has had a huge impact on all walks of life, from marine navigation to domestic clocks, scientific measurement to clocking-on at work.

'Synchronome' electric master clock, 1930s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And, as technologies like mobile telephony and satellite navigation converge in consumer kit we can buy on the high street, the future’s looking bright for electric time.

'Navstar' GPS navigation satellite, 1986 (NASA / Science & Society)

I’m chairing the fourth annual Greenwich Time Symposium next month, on Saturday 12 June, at the National Maritime Museum, in association with the Electrical Horology Group.

We’ll be exploring the theme of ‘Electric Time’ – at sea, at work, in the lab, in everyday life and in the future. There’s lots more information here.

Tickets are just £8 for the day, or £6 if you’re a member of the Antiquarian Horological Society. Maybe see you there…

Station clock meets its Waterloo

No sooner do I write a blog about the symbolism of Waterloo’s station clock than it gets taken out of service for a refurbishment!

Waterloo station clock under repair, London, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

The concourse underneath the Waterloo clock has become an iconic meeting-place, a focal point amidst the hurry of the station, as shown in Terence Cuneo’s dramatic painting:

Waterloo station, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Now, for a few weeks, time stands still for the station’s passengers.

Waiting under the Waterloo station clock, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

Railways run on time. In the early days, time was a life-saver – literally – as trains used the tracks on a time-share arrangement. The wrong time on the guard’s watch could kill.

Railway guard's watch and railway timetable, 19th century (NRM / Science & Society)

Nowadays, the railways get their time from a constellation of US military satellites (the same ones that tell you where to go while driving), or through a radio signal broadcast from Anthorn, a remote spit of land on the Cumbria coast.

The Cumbrian signal is Britain’s official national time signal. It’s called MSF and it’s run for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory by VT Communications, part of a firm that used to be called Vosper Thornycroft. I’ve mentioned them before. They’ve a long history of shipbuilding.

And they’ve just merged with Babcock, a company that started life making marine steam boilers. The MSF time signal and its predecessors began as an Admiralty service for British naval officers to check their chronometers at sea.

Transport and time – two stories intertwined. But I recommend you take your own watch to Waterloo for the next few weeks…

Quartz crystals in the captain’s cabin

Last week I showed you the Rolex wristwatch that went seven miles down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, in the Pacific Ocean, in 1960. Let’s stay with the nautical theme with this marine chronometer:

Patek Philippe quartz marine chronometer (David Rooney)

Chronometers, as I’ve said before, were the timekeeping devices carried on board every ship from about 1810 to the 1980s to help navigate. The Royal Observatory Greenwich is the place to go for the whole chronometer story, but we too have some rather nice ones in our Measuring Time gallery.

Science Museum 'Measuring Time' gallery (David Rooney)

Most ships navigate using GPS these days, but I know quite a few amateur and recreational sailors who still navigate with the chronometer method. They tend to use their wristwatch, because modern quartz watches keep time just fine for longitude purposes.

The chronometer I just showed you (by luxury Swiss watchmakers Patek Philippe, whose remarkable factory in Geneva I once had the pleasure of visiting) is one of a small number of quartz versions produced in the 1970s and 1980s. They were more accurate than their mechanical counterparts, but were often boxed to look similar. Their days were numbered, though, as GPS started to take off.

But the maritime world is getting increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of GPS to jamming. Last year, a major exercise off the coast of Tynemouth took place to demonstrate how many systems could be affected in the event of hostile GPS signal jamming. This parliamentary debate shows how worrying this is – definitely a story to watch.

Navigating through time

Since about 1800, maritime navigation has relied on super-accurate timekeeping. Recently this has involved radio time signals beamed down from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, but for the bulk of the period, ship masters have navigated using the chronometer. These are very accurate portable timekeepers carried on the ship, providing a reference to compare against local time.

The difference between the two times is equivalent to the east-west distance between the two places. That’s longitude, and it was a real devil to find before the chronometer was developed. One of the most notable chronometer-making firms celebrates its 175th birthday this year. Founded in 1834, the Charles Frodsham company is still going strong today.

Back in the day, they worked in partnership with the Astronomer Royal at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, on high-tech timekeeping research projects that saved countless lives at sea. About to go back on display in our newly-refurbished Measuring Time gallery is this top-quality example of Charles Frodsham’s early work – a lovely 1840s pocket chronometer:

Pocket chronometer by Arnold and Frodsham, Science Museum collection (credit: David Rooney)

Pocket chronometer by Arnold and Frodsham, Science Museum collection (credit: David Rooney)

Now, they’re developing a new form of mechanical wristwatch which will be built entirely at their premises in Sussex. I visited them last week. Their skill and passion is remarkable, blending old-school watchmaking skills with the latest sophisticated design processes and highly complex mechanical manufacturing methods. We’ve always been good in this country at technical design and innovation, and I saw no end of that out in Sussex last week.

Happy 175th birthday!