When I was asked to write a piece about time capsules, I thought I’d let other people do the hard work for me, so I dug around in the silty layers of cyber-soil until I’d unearthed the names and e-mail addresses of a fair number of recognized time capsule experts and experienced time capsule creators, then wrote them e-mails asking them to tell me a bit of what they knew about the history of the time capsule, and, more importantly, to speculate on or theorize about its social or spiritual function.
I would like to imagine that at least a few of those messages tossed out into the void arrived intact, and I would even like to imagine that a few of their designated recipients were sufficiently motivated by my questions to write back. Seeing as I have still not heard from any of them, I can only assume that they have decided to answer me in the form of a demonstration. I imagine that some afternoon, ten or twenty or fifty years from now, a series of messages will arrive in my inbox, and I will open them to find at long last the answers to the questions I asked way back in December of the year 2007.
People have been burying things — including each other — as a means of preserving them since the beginning of time. A time capsule, however, is by definition preserved with the intention of being opened and unveiled on some specific future date.
The time capsule enjoyed its golden age during the 1950s and ’60s, an historical era during which people were generally obsessed with the future and generally convinced that it would be futuristic: shiny, happy, and mechanized. In this sense time capsules belonged to the same family of phenomena as The Jetsons and Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center.
Mid-century America’s collective fantasy of the future imagined its own present as being completely obsolete, and the time capsule offered hope. Although your typical time capsule was filled with only the most banal ephemera of daily life — razor blades, television sets, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, etc. — there was nothing ho-hum about the thinking behind it all. Couched among all those dime-store knick-knacks lives a deep-seated hope that the here and now, the society on the verge of obsolescence, might not have to die after all.
These days, there seems to be a good deal less time capsule fever, just as there is, generally speaking, less faith in the future. Perhaps this is because the future is now and, in spite of iPods and cars that can parallel park themselves, it just isn’t all that shiny and happy. Or perhaps it is because while time capsules have traditionally accommodated objects, society has moved out of the age of the object and into the age of information. No surprise, then, that the most recent addition to the time capsule family is the online time capsule, which promises to stash away things like e-mail exchanges and digital snapshots for future discovery.
For all my apparent cynicism, however, I can’t deny that there is something beautiful about the notion of the time capsule. To seal our right now into a future we will not live to see is to make ourselves present in our own absence — and what could be more profound than that?
The Century Safe, 1876, Philadelphia
The so-called “Century Safe,” assembled and buried in Philadelphia on the occasion of the American centennial in 1876, was the first official time capsule, sealed with the intent that it be opened a hundred years later at the American bicentennial. In 1879, three years after its creation, the Century Safe was moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and everyone promptly forgot where they’d put it — not an uncommon fate for a time capsule, according to the website for the International Time Capsule Society. Unlike most misplaced time capsules, however, the Century Safe’s location was eventually rediscovered, and it was unearthed and unveiled on schedule. Nevertheless, the occasion proved anticlimactic: the capsule’s contents included the signatures of visitors to the original centennial celebration, bound in red leather guest books, as well as autographs and photographs of a number of the day’s military and political luminaries. To make matters worse, the unfailingly dour Gerald Ford was the one who opened it. Those in attendance must have marveled at the fact that they’d waited a hundred years for this.
Expo 1970 time capsule, 1970, Osaka, Japan
At the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan, Panasonic cosponsored the burial of a time capsule perhaps less likely than most to be forgotten and abandoned. This is because the Osaka time capsule was in fact two time capsules: one not to be opened for 5,000 years — not all that long by time capsule standards — and a second packed with exactly the same contents and scheduled to be periodically retrieved, opened, and inspected. The Osaka plan served a dual function: first, as the contents of the time capsule included actual living bacteria, the excavations and inspections would provide invaluable information about the limits and possibilities of preservation; second, and perhaps more profoundly, the regular excavations and inspections would act as a reminder not only of the location of the time capsule, but indeed of the very fact of its existence, multiplying exponentially the likelihood that if people are still around 5,000 years from now, they will dig it up on schedule. In any case, it appears that the Osaka time capsule will at the very least be worth opening. Aside from bacteria, its contents include silk condoms, some potentially kinky medical supplies, the blackened fingernail of a survivor of an atomic attack, and a set of false teeth that appears to be smiling.
Andy Warhol’s time capsules, 1970s, Pittsburgh
Starting around 1974, Warhol took to stuffing cardboard boxes with the flotsam and jetsam of his daily life, then taping them shut when they were full and archiving them. Most of the friends and assistants who knew of the existence of these boxes thought they were merely cardboard boxes filled with knick-knacks, but to the artist himself they were genuine time capsules. Warhol’s plan was to auction them off unopened, forcing investors to gamble on the potential value of their stock — a properly Warholian idea — but in the end the capsules were never sold, and today all 600 belong to the Andy Warhol Museum, where they are accessible to students and scholars. The contents of Warhol’s Time Capsule #21 are available online. I tried to read through the list, but it lost me at “Envelopes (unused).” Turns out Andy Warhol’s daily life was filled with the same useless crap as everyone else’s.
Cápsula de Tiempo Córdoba, 1992, Seville, Spain
On the final day of the 1992 World Expo, held in Seville, an anonymous artist collective that we now know included artists Robin Kahn and Kirby Gookin unveiled their Cápsula de Tiempo Córdoba on the banks of the Guadalquivir River just outside the back door of the famous Monasterio de la Cartuja. The Cápsula de Tiempo Córdoba is unlike other time capsules in that it is a tar pit. It is also unlike other time capsules in that since the tar pretty much swallows up anything that falls into it, it can be simultaneously sealed and open. The evolving time capsule/garbage pit in which all are invited to participate — a challenge to the dogma that only the elite should have access to the means of historical production — remains open to this day. If you happen to be in the area, go on by and chuck something in: a corncob, a gum wrapper, an expired Eurail ticket.
The KEO time capsule, 2009 (or thereabouts), Outer Space
The French space artist Jean-Marc Philippe, whose career has apparently not been adversely affected by the fact that he has three first names, came up with the KEO time capsule project. Its own name a mash-up of humankind’s three most common phonemes, the KEO time capsule will in fact be a satellite on which people from the present can store messages for people of the future. The artist’s stated goal is to compile messages representing every culture and ethnic demographic on Earth, but one wonders if it has occurred to him that in the end, the satellite will inevitably contain only messages composed by people interested in writing messages to the people of the future and then blasting those messages into outer space aboard a Frenchman’s satellite? Originally scheduled for a 2001 departure but subsequently delayed until either 2009 or 2010 — I do not know if due to weather or mechanical difficulties — the KEO satellite can be expected to crash into Earth approximately 50,000 years after it leaves.
The Crypt of Civilization, 1936, Atlanta
What’s an Oglethorpe? An orchestral instrument? A species of rare bird? Wrong, and wrong again. In fact, it’s a university in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1936, Thornwell Jacobs, then-president and re-founder of Oglethorpe University, came up with the idea for the “Crypt of Civilization,” essentially the mother of all time capsules. Struck by a general lack of information regarding ancient civilizations, Jacobs decided to construct, in a waterproof subterranean chamber on the grounds of Oglethorpe U, a sort of prefabricated archeological gold mine. Since at the time it had been 6,177 years since the Egyptians established humanity’s first known calendar, Jacobs proposed that his Crypt of Civilization be sealed for another 6,177 years, until the year 8113. No doubt those who discover the Crypt will work up a tremendous thirst taking stock of its exhaustive contents (books, records, photographs, artificial limbs, papier-mâché models of fruits and vegetables, and even an English-teaching apparatus, which should come in quite handy as the people of the future will surely speak Chinese). Luckily, they will find a quart of beer inside the Crypt with which to quench that thirst. Oglethorpe University has since become home to the aforementioned International Time Capsule Society.
Online time capsules, the present, the Internet
I recently decided to open an account on Facebook. I’d read an article that described users keeping tabs, by way of the popular website, on what their friends and loved ones were up to. I wasn’t all that interested in keeping tabs on my friends and loved ones, but I liked the idea of their keeping tabs on me. A month or so later, I have fifty-one Facebook friends — more friends than there are states in my home country! — but I’ve found that Facebook provides not so much an opportunity to keep up with what friends and loved ones are up to as an opportunity to keep up with what friends and loved one are up to on Facebook.
A slew of so-called “online time capsules” promise to function more or less like Facebook or Myspace pages, the main difference being that after a certain predetermined period of time they will be locked and will remain that way for some other predetermined period of time: choose twenty, fifty, or a hundred years. But just as social existence is a constant negotiation, an unending jockeying for position, the whole point of social networking sites is to demonstrate change and, one hopes, evolution. To fix for posterity today’s profile photo, list of favorite movies, and preferred inspirational quote seems a recipe for mild embarrassment at best, and for social excommunication at worst.
The Wilmette Jr. High time capsule, 1982–2007, Chicago
This past December, staff members cleaning out a storage room at Wilmette Jr. High in Chicago came across a time capsule that had been hidden there secretly, way back in 1982, by a group of mischievous students. According to an article posted on the website for Chicago’s ABC 7 News, the capsule contained “books, magazines, and other early 80s memorabilia.” I’m trying to figure out why the writer wasn’t more specific. I don’t know, but I do remember that when I was in junior high a semi-popular kid by the name of Sam M. came to school with a copy of Penthouse that he’d stolen from his older brother. When he gave it to super-popular John N. to look at, John commandeered it and told him that he wouldn’t give it back unless Sam climbed to the top of the jungle gym after school, where everyone could see him, and urinated. You know what? Sam was so desperate to get that magazine back, he did it. I don’t know what the secret time capsule at Wilmette Jr. High contained, but I highly doubt that anything from one’s junior high years — not even the bad memories — should be preserved.
Missing time capsules, ongoing, location unknown
Although most time capsules are both lost and forgotten, some have been only lost. We know they exist, we just don’t know where. The most interesting of the world’s missing time capsules, as described on the rather musty website of the International Time Capsule Society, include the Bicentennial Wagon Train time capsule and the MIT cyclotron time capsule. The former was supposed to be buried by Gerald Ford on the occasion of the American bicentennial, right before or after he opened the Century Safe time capsule, but was apparently stolen from the van in which it had been transported. The ITCS website describes the latter, the contents of which were undocumented, as being sealed by a group of MIT engineers “beneath an 18-ton magnet used in a brand new, state-of-the-art cyclotron.” (I hate when that happens.) For the most part, time capsules seem to contain a lot of useless junk. But who knows what might be locked away in these missing time capsules? Perhaps the secret formula for curing cancer, or instructions on how to keep oil and vinegar from separating. As long as the capsules are missing, they will remain an open book, their possibilities limited only by the imagination. &