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Steampunks Invade The Interval

The café and cocktail bar in San Francisco is the public face of the Long Now Foundation

Monday, August 6, 2018

As soon as you enter The Interval in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, you can tell that this is no ordinary drinking establishment. At one end stands an eight-foot tall orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system displaying the six planets that are visible to the naked eye. Along a wall, bookshelves rise two stories from the floor to the ceiling, containing an eclectic collection of volumes that constitute a “Manual for Civilization.” Among them: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Behind the bar is an art installation created by musician Brian Eno, generating an ever-changing series of light paintings.


If you happened to visit on July 30, you also would have seen a merry band of steampunks exploring the venue, posing for photos, and (of course) sampling the cocktail menu.

The Interval is the public face of the Long Now Foundation, an organization founded in 1996 that aims to counter modern civilization’s “pathologically short attention span,” in the words of co-founder Stewart Brand. “Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries.” In keeping with this thinking, the foundation designates years in five digits, so it was actually founded in 01996 and we’re now in 02018.

The group’s most prominent project is the Clock of the Long Now, a giant mechanical clock currently under construction inside a mountain in West Texas. Designed to keep time for 10,000 years, the clock will be controlled by what are essentially mechanical computers: rotating disks and other elements that mechanically replicate digital circuits. The main dial will display the time, year, sun position and a star field. An early prototype is on display at The Science Museum in London. The Interval’s orrery is a quarter-scale model of a secondary display for the clock. Mechanical computers underneath the display will calculate the planetary positions each day at noon and midnight.

The clock will be powered by human visitors who will wind the mechanism. Backup power will be provided by energy generated from temperature changes between night and day.

The clock and orrery were conceived by Danny Hillis, another co-founder of the foundation. He’s best known for launching supercomputer manufacturer Thinking Machines Corporation in 1983.

Chime Generator

The Interval also contains a prototype of a chime generator that will control the ringing of 10 bells each day in the 10,000-year clock. Housed underneath a plate glass table, it’s another mechanical computer that uses an algorithm developed by Hillis and Eno to determine the bell-ringing order. It can generate more than 3.5 million different “songs,” or one per day for the next 10,000 years. Eno, who is a board member of the foundation, used the same algorithm for his album “January 07003 / Bell Studies for The Clock of The Long Now.”

The “Manual for Civilization” is a collection of about 3500 books that represent “a record of humanity and technology for our descendants,” the foundation says. The titles were suggested by guest curators, including Hillis, Eno, Brand, “Brain Pickings” blogger Maria Popova, sex author Violet Blue, publisher Tim O’Reilly, and science-fiction authors Neal Stephenson, David Brin, Bruce Sterling and Daniel Suarez.

Another foundation effort is The Rosetta Project, which aims to build a digital library of the world’s human languages. A display case at The Interval holds a 2.8-inch Rosetta Disk, containing more 15,000 pages of information on 1500 languages. Each page is the width of five human hairs, but can be read through a microscope.

In addition to these projects, the foundation hosts periodic seminars, “salon talks” and other events. It’s funded in part by donations and offers a range of membership levels, beginning with the $8-per-month Stainless Steel plan. The first version of the 10,000-year clock is being built on land owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who has also contributed $42 million toward the construction. It’s near Van Horn, Texas, about 120 miles southeast of El Paso.

The Steampunk Invasion was the latest in a series of field trips organized by steampunks in Northern California. See the gallery below for photos. Next on the calendar is a visit to Obtainium Works, August 11 in Vallejo, California.

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