The Long Now Foundation

The Long Now Foundation

Keeper of the Clock

by Danny Hillis

Explanatory Note

Book Credits

“I William, a Keeper of the Clock, do hereby make my testimony of this moment. In accordance with tradition, I shall describe the current doctrines regarding the nature and location of the Clock.”


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is displayed prominently in a public place, where it stands as a tribute to order and continuity. Such public clocks exist in every region, yet for the most part only the local population believes in the tradition of its own clock. There are some who are fanatical in insisting that theirs is the One True Clock. These zealots demand that everyone accept their own clock as supreme and renounce all others.

Among those who believe that the Clock is in a public place, there are those who say that it is a secret which of these public clocks is the true Clock. They claim that most clocks are decoys, accidental or deliberate, and that the true Clock hides in plain sight among the pretenders. Some swear to know which one is genuine, but they tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a stone, hidden under a waterfall. Within the layers of this stone are the images of the future faces of the Clock. The waterfall wears away at the layers of stone, exposing each face in its proper time. The shape of the river leading to the waterfall is a hydraulic regulator of ingenious design, built to control the flow of the water in a way that precisely compensates for changes in rainfall or temperature, so that the rate of erosion does not vary.

Based on this supposition, explorers have searched for the Clock in rivers and streams across the world, and even in the currents of the oceans. There are those who claim to have found it. They say that the stone lies under a mountain spring flowing from a deep limestone cave. They claim to have drunk cool waters that have washed across the stone, but they tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a map of the stars. According to their doctrine, the map is etched onto a window of quartz. Next to the map is an astronomical telescope that is always pointed directly upwards, toward the zenith of the sky. Some describe the mirror of the telescope as a pool of slowly spinning quicksilver that forms a perfect upward-pointing parabola. Others say that the telescope has a lens of clear sapphire. All agree that this telescope is connected to the map of the stars by a marvelous mechanical mechanism of wheels and prisms. By turning the crank of this complex device, the timekeeper aligns the map with the image in the telescope, thereby establishing the time.

The dials of the mechanism indicate the date according to the ancient calendars: the number of years since the Hijra of Muhammad, since the birth of Jesus of the Cross, since the Jewish Creation. It displays the Mayan Baktun, Katun and Tun and the year of the Hindu Vikrama, as well as other calendar systems long forgotten. It also indicates the counts of years since the supernova in the Great Crab Nebula, and the years since the creation of the Clock itself. Besides these dates, the mechanism displays such astronomical ephemera as the phase of the moon and the positions of the moons of Jupiter. It shows the portions of the day as hours and minutes and seconds, according to the sexagesimal system of the Babylonians.

There are those who claim to have visited this telescope and to have spun its wheels until the map is in perfect alignment with the heavens. They say that the time indicated by the Clock is true, but they tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a pocket watch kept in the care of a secret society. The members of the society are not known to one another by name, but they have certain secret signs by which they can recognize one another. The clock never stays in the same hands for more than a few years. When a guardian feels that the time has come to pass the Clock to another, he or she must choose the next guardian. The passing of the Clock usually takes place without ceremony. To an outsider it might appear as a chance encounter between two strangers. Their eyes form a brief connection, one perhaps betraying a hint of surprise, and then one of them presses a small object into the palm of the other and they part company. They never speak about what has passed between them. There are those who claim to have held the Clock in their own hands, but they tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a colossal machine buried in a mountain. It is many days journey from the nearest city. They say that to reach the Clock, you must pass across a barren desert, over a field of thorns, through a dark tunnel, and across a bottomless pit. Deep within the mountain is a spiral staircase cut into the stone. This staircase wraps around a mechanical device with levers, cams, and gears of gigantic proportions. Above this machinery are the bells. Before passing, each visitor must wind the mechanism by lifting a great weight. At the top of the stairway, in a chamber cut into the heart of the mountain, ticks the Clock.

The chamber is cool and dark, but each day at exactly noon a beam of sunlight shines through a hole, deep into the chamber. This sunlight illuminates the face of the Clock and triggers its mechanism. At that moment the bells begin to chime. They say that each time, it chimes a new melody that will never be repeated.

Some say that the Clock in the mountain needs people to wind it, but others believe that it keeps the time by its own accord and that the winding is only an offering, which the Clock accepts with its chimes. Others say that the Clock, when it is visited, shows the time of the last visitor, and only after it is wound does it reveal its knowledge of the true time. There are those who claim to have visited this mountain, to have heard the quiet tick and the thunderous chimes within the mountain, but they tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that there is more than one true Clock. Others contend that there is only a single Clock, but that there are several identical copies. Some argue that there are many clocks that show the true time, yet others disagree, pointing out that no two clocks can ever move forward at exactly the same rate. Since there is only one true time, they argue, there is only one true Clock.

There are even those who honor all clocks, claiming that any copy of the true Clock is as sacred as the true Clock itself. They point out that each clock may sometimes show the true time, even if only for an instant, so they honor them all. For them, each clock may once have been or may one day be a perfect clock. Although they honor all clocks, they still believe in the existence of the one true Clock. They tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a black bull with a white patch on its brow. It has the shape of an eagle on its back, two white hairs in its tail and the mark of the sacred scarab beetle on its tongue. By these signs it is known to its followers. It lives and dies within a sacred temple. It is the duty of the faithful to identify each new reincarnation of the bull when it is reborn and return it to the temple, where it can live a long and presumably happy life with its harem of cows.

Each time the bull dies its body is embalmed and borne with solemnity along the sacred path to the great Serapeum. There it is placed into the labyrinth on a pedestal, inside its own huge stone sarcophagus. Each sarcophagus is engraved with the story of the life and times of that reincarnation of the bull. Each burial and rebirth is a tick of the Clock. There are those who claim to have visited the Serapeum and walked for days underground, through the vast galleries of the entombed bulls. They tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is the beating of a human heart. It is the heart of the lifegiver, who sits in deep meditation, in perfect serenity. The heartbeat of the lifegiver is steady, beating exactly the same number of beats in every day. That number is two times two, times three times three, times four times four, times five times five, times six. The lifegiver feels the pain and suffering of all beings, but he also feels their joys and passions. Because these two are in perfect balance, the lifegiver’s perfect empathy leads to his perfect serenity. They say the lifegiver sits in a cave, with his legs folded in the position of the lotus. Some claim to have visited this cave and to have laid offerings before him, though he showed no sign to acknowledge their presence. They say the cave is cut into the face of a high cliff near the top of a mountain, but they tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a story. Most of these say that it is just a story, but others claim that it is The Story. These believers claim that The Story is a complete narrative of all events, all that have happened in the past, all that will happen in the future. They profess these three precepts: that The Story contains all true history and all true prophecy, that it has a beginning and an end, and that we are all within it. The telling of The Story is the ticking of the Clock. Some even say that The Story has been written into a golden book, or a library, or encoded into a vast mathematical equation. They say that we experience this story as it is told, that we only imagine that we make our choices. We imagine that we make them, just as The Story tells that we will imagine.

Among those that say that the Clock is a story, there are those who believe that God is the storyteller. Others believe that God wrote The Story into a book and that it is there for us to read. Some claim to have seen this book in visions or dreams and to have glimpsed its pages. Others insist that the book is in heaven, where God is reading it now. Each turn of a page is a tick of the Clock. There are others who believe that the book is in our world, but that it is written in a secret language that can never be read. They tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a garden. The hub of the Clock garden is a bristlecone pine tree, planted high on a mountaintop. Every year, for many thousands of years, the Clock tree has grown a new ring. The tree ring records not only that a year has passed, but also the rainfall and sunlight of that year. Droughts, volcanic eruptions, ages of ice or fire, and other such calamities are all patiently noted.

Surrounding the Clock tree is a sparse forest of bristlecones. These twisted trunks are spaced at regular intervals, in a pattern established by the trees themselves through countless millennia of patient negotiation. Surrounding the bristlecones are limber pines that live for a thousand years. Then down the mountainside, grow the five-hundred-year junipers, the centuries of walnuts and oaks, the decades of dogwood and aspen, then finally, as the forest opens into sagebrush, the sacred cottonwoods. Beyond the cottonwoods, at the base of the mountain, the garden breaks into arrangements of small shrubs, deerbush and spicebush and Mormon tea, and then into open fields, sprinkled with violets, pink figworts, yellow buttercups, and scarlet gilia. At the edge of the Clock is the blue-eyed sisyrinchium montanums, which blooms for a single morning and then is gone by the afternoon.

There are those who claim to have visited the garden of the Clock and to have learned to read the time from its fragrant blossoms. They tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is a promise, made long ago. For generations, the promise has been fulfilled faithfully by members of a certain family. Each day they rise with the sun, according to their pledge, and recite the number of that day. This is the count of the days that have passed since the founding of the Clock. Whenever three or more come together they establish by a ritual that they are in agreement regarding the day’s number. This they do before each meal and on every formal occasion. Some claim that this family is endowed with great wealth, and that the wealth will be forfeited should they fail to accurately recite the number of the day. For this reason, those members who prove unreliable are shunned.

There are some who believe that family has dwindled away, but that many of its traditions are still practiced by the descendents of those who were banished. Others are certain that the ritual still thrives. They claim to know the family and to have heard its daily recitations. They tell not where it resideth.


In this moment, there are some who say that the Clock is only a song, a song that is sung to the rhythm of the tides. They say that we can hear fragments of the song everyday, in the chirp of a cricket, the call of a whale, the roll of thunder and the croak of a frog. What is difficult for us to perceive is that each of these voices is performed in cycles. Some take many decades to repeat. The cycles of voices are never in exactly the same alignment. The voices play against one another across the centuries, as the sun and the moon chase each other across the sky. Just as the rounds of the sun and moon create the patterns of the tides, so do the rounds of voices create the patterns of the song. When the possibilities are eventually exhausted, when every variation has been performed, the song will end. The Clock will stop. Then, in that moment of silence, the world will be created anew.

I William, do hereby relate these doctrines for inclusion in the archive as a record of this moment. I affirm that I have recorded each doctrine without embellishment, and that I know each to be an echo of the Truth.

I further affirm, by my own direct knowledge, that the Clock is safe and diligently kept, and that its time is steady. I shall tell not where it resideth.

So ends my testimony of this moment.

~ William, a Keeper of the Clock