How Faith – and Fear – Created the World’s First Time Capsule

By Jill Neimark | August 8, 2014 11:11 am

Atlanta, Georgia, prides itself on being a world class city, but in 6,000 years it may be remembered for one thing only: a massive time capsule buried in its midst. The waterproof, airtight, hermetically sealed time capsule, called the Crypt of Civilization, was locked and bolted shut on May 25, 1940 – making it the first ever time capsule in history. Its lofty ideal was to preserve a snapshot of all of civilization up until 1940, with strict orders not to be opened until the year 8113.

The crypt was the brainchild of Oglethorpe University president Thornwell Jacobs. who like many others of his time, was deeply moved when the tombs of the Egyptian pyramids were opened in the 1920s. But those tombs told us little about Egyptian daily life, and Jacobs decided that future civilizations might want a record of ours. And so he invented the time capsule, which has since been imitated around the world, in capsules ranging from the intimate to the immense. The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) estimates there are now 10,000-15,000 capsules worldwide. However, most of them are forever lost to humanity, their whereabouts forgotten and their records misplaced over the years.

That makes it all the more remarkable that the Crypt persists, unopened but watched over by the university whose grounds it inhabits. Crafted out of a basement room that once held a swimming pool, the Crypt is twenty feet long and ten feet wide with ten-foot ceilings. It’s set in Appalachian granite bedrock under a stone roof seven feet thick, lined with enamel plates embedded in pitch. The only visible marker of its existence above ground is a tiny x carved in a flagstone outside the university’s Phoebe Hearst Memorial.

History Encapsulated

The Crypt contains everything from voice recordings of Adolf Hitler to dental floss and a plastic Donald Duck – as well as a hand-powered English-teaching device, should our descendants eons from now not speak our tongue. The device has a vocabulary of only 1500 words, called “Basic English” and used in cryptographic codes in World War I.

Many artifacts were placed in airtight, stainless steel containers lined with glass and filled with nitrogen gas to prevent oxidation and decay. There are microfilms of over 800 classic works of literature, including the Bible and the Koran, voice recordings of everyone from Benito Mussolini to Popeye the Sailor. There are sewing machines, telephones, mechanical watches, and a television. (For the full inventory, see this list.)

The Crypt is protected by a steel door bolted shut, on which the makers have inscribed this plea: “[We] beg of all persons that this door and the contents of the Crypt within may remain inviolate.”

Why We Bury

For every thousand time capsules buried, just one is found, simply because we have no idea they exist at all. So why do it? Paul Hudson, an historian who is one of the four founders of the ITCS, puts it this way: “Time capsules are a complete leap of faith, and people who create them are very optimistic. They think they can reach out to generations they don’t even know, and say, I was here, and I made a difference.”

The Crypt inspired a few other famous time capsules, including two created by the Westinghouse Corporation. Time Capsule I was created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; and Time Capsule II for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Both are buried 50 feet below Flushing Meadows Park, the site of both world’s fairs, and are to be opened at the same time in the year 6939.

Says Brian Durrans, former senior curator at the British Museum and also a co-founder of the ITCS: “What is most interesting about time capsules is the fact that we are actually setting the stage for an encounter with beings not present in our space and time. Westinghouse created a replica of their first time capsule. And you could more or less see everything that was buried in the original just a few yards away. But that wasn’t enough for people. They felt mysteriously drawn to the actual capsule, the one that future beings might encounter.”

Preservation for the Far Future

If every time capsule is a way of having a conversation with the inconceivable future, it is astonishing that not one single time capsule has been sealed for more than six thousand years. That is still the very near future, at least in terms of evolution. Berkeley University paleoanthropologist Timothy White describes the way his sense of time has been changed by digging up bones of human ancestors that are four million years old. “Imagine a timeless observer,” he says, “looking at the earth not just in a human lifespan but able to actually observe evolution itself. It would be pretty darn monotonous for a million years and then all of a sudden what seems to us like a long time – from the 1800’s until now – all this change is packed into the last tick of the clock. You could blink and miss it all.”

Nobody has designed a time capsule for beyond that blink, meant to last say a hundred thousand or a million years, to be uncovered like the fossil of an ancient, extinct species. What would we put in such a capsule, if we could stand to even envision the poor odds of humans surviving that long and on a radically altered planet?

For Jacobs, the year 8113 seemed, perhaps, equally unlikely. He chose the year for its historical resonance: Scholars marked 4241 BC as the year the Egyptian calendar was first established – 6117 years prior. So he added 6117 to 1936 (the year he began work on the crypt), and arrived at the symbolic date of 8113 to open the time capsule – as far in the future from then-present-day as those captivating pyramids were in the past.

But in May of 1940, when the Crypt was finally sealed, World War II was underway, and the future was uncertain. Jacobs addressed a future civilization with a note in the crypt, leaving them these words: “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.”


Crypt images courtesy of the Archives, Philip Weltner Library, Oglethorpe University



The 7 Most-Wanted Time Capsules

The ITCS maintains a list of the missing or otherwise irretrievable time capsules scattered about the world – though many more exist and are simply unknown. Here, their seven “most-wanted.”

George Washington's CornerstoneBlackpool TowerLyndon, Vermont, Time CapsuleThe Gramophone Company Time CapsuleMIT Cyclotron Time CapsuleCorona, Calif. Time CapsulesBicentennial Wagon Train Time Capsule

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
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  • Uncle Al

    desiccant Adding 50 kg of activated silica gel, gamma-anhydrite calcium sulfate, or Type-A molecular sieves would have made all the difference in the world. Just before sealing, purge with nitrogen then pump in ethylene oxide to sterilize the whole thing over time.

    10,000-15,000 capsules worldwide…their whereabouts forgotten and their records misplaced over the years.” That’s the point. The largest planetary time capsules are landfills prior to recycling.

  • Jesse-Douglas Mathewson

    The Westinghouse Time Capsule buried at the World’s Fair predates this time capsule by two years.

    • Jill Neimark

      Thanks Jesse-Douglas but Thornwell Jacobs began work on this in 1936, garnering a lot of publicity on the way, which inspired Westinghouse. Lots of background history on Oglethorpe University’s site if you look. :-)

      • Jesse-Douglas Mathewson

        Yes, it’s very interesting, but it’s not really a time ‘capsule’ until it’s closed and preferably buried.


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