The National Debt Clock
The official National Debt clock is a billboard-sized
running total dot-matrix display which constantly updates to
show the current United States gross national debt and
each American family's share of the debt. It is currently
installed on Sixth Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) in
Manhattan, New York City.
The idea for the clock came from New York real estate
developer Seymour Durst, who wanted to highlight the
rising national debt. In 1989, he sponsored the installation
of the first clock which was erected on 42nd Street close to
Times Square. At the time, the national debt remained
under $3 trillion, but was rising. The clock was temporarily
switched off from 2000 to 2002 due to the debt actually
falling during that period.
In 2004, the original clock was dismantled and
replaced by the current clock at the new location one block
away. In 2008, the US national debt exceeded $10 trillion
for the first time, leading to press reports that the clock had
run out of digits.
The original clock outlived Seymour, who died in 1995,
with Seymour's son Douglas taking over the responsibility
for the clock through the Durst Organization. As of
September 2009, Douglas Durst's cousin Jonathan "Jody"
Durst — with whom he shares a co-presidency of the
company — is in the process of taking over the day-to-day
operations as president. In an interview with The New York
Times, Jonathan Durst has said that maintenance of the
clock is planned "for years to come."
Douglas Durst has been quoted as saying that the
clock represents a non-partisan effort; he has further
explained the motivation behind the project in terms of
intergenerational equity: "We're a family business. We think
generationally, and we don't want to see the next
generation crippled by this burden."
According to Douglas, his father had been toying with
the basic idea of drawing attention to the growing national
debt since at least 1980, when during the holiday season
he sent cards that said "Happy New Year. Your share of the
national debt is $35,000" to senators and congressmen. In
the early eighties (when Durst first developed the idea of a
constantly updated clock), the technology required to
implement the project was not yet available.
With the national debt at 2. 7 trillion, the original 11 by
26 foot ( 3. 4 × 7. 9 m) clock was constructed at a cost of
$100,000. It was mounted a block from Times Square on a
Durst building at Sixth Avenue near 42nd Street; it faced
the north side of 42nd Street and Bryant Park across the
intersection. Built by the New York sign company Artkraft
Strauss, the clock featured a dot-matrix display with the
then-typical character resolution of 5x7. Similar to the
second clock, the updating mechanism was such that the
display was set to the estimated speed of debt growth
(odometer-style) and adjusted weekly according to the
latest numbers published by the US Treasury. Up until the
week before his death, Seymour himself adjusted the tally
via modem. Since his passing, Artkraft Strauss has been
keeping the figures current.
In 2000 — due to an improving debt situation — the
clock started to run backwards. With the original purpose
of the clock being to highlight the rising debt and the
reverse giving a mixed message (and with the display not
being designed to properly run backwards), the clock was
unplugged and covered with a red, white, and blue curtain
in September 2000, with the national debt standing at
roughly $5.7 trillion. The clock was not dismantled,
however, and in July 2002 the curtain was raised and the
clock once again picked up tracking a rising debt, starting
at $6.1 trillion.
In 2004, the original clock was moved from its location
near 42nd Street; the building has since made way for One
Bryant Park. An updated model — which can run backwards
— was installed one block away on a Durst building at 1133
Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). It is mounted on
the side wall of the building which faces West 44th Street.
The new clock is outfitted with a dot-matrix display of
higher resolution than its predecessor which emulates the
customary seven-segment numeral patterns, allowing the
numbers to be read more easily.
In the midst of extensive media attention during the
financial crisis beginning in 2007, some news reports
mentioned the National Debt Clock, highlighting the fact
that its display had run out of digits when the US gross
federal debt rose above $10 trillion on September 30,
An overhaul or complete replacement adding two
more digits to the clock's display is being planned.
The German National Debt clock is located at the
Berlin headquarters of the taxpayer watchdog group, Bund
The idea of conveying a message through a periodically
updated clock found an earlier expression in the Doomsday
clock. However, the innovation of the National Debt clock
was to feature a constantly running counter; it has since
inspired similar projects elsewhere, both in the US and
further afield. Various tracking counters of national debt are
also kept online.
The National Debt clock has been credited as the
inspiration behind other running totalizers, for example, an
AMD campaign employing an electronic billboard; instead
of a debt, it tracked the supposed additional cost of using a
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