Capsule History


If those Philadelphia relics were ever to be retrieved, it would be a matter of chance: No provisions had been made for their box to be opened. That key element of what we now generally think of as a time capsule appeared four years later, again in Philadelphia. As Americans celebrated the Centennial, some turned their thoughts not only back a hundred years but also forward for the same span. The attractions of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition included a Century Safe, which contained, among other things, photographs and autographs of dignitaries and a book on temperance. Visitors to the display signed leather-bound volumes, which were added to the collection. Finally the safe, more than five feet high and lined with purple velvet, was sealed with instructions that it be opened in 1976. Stored under the steps of the Capitol, it was opened on schedule, as part of the U.S. Bicentennial festivities.

“The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever,” wrote Jacobs in 1940. He would save it in his “Crypt.”

Once established, the tradition of fixed opening dates for time capsules was adopted widely, on both a municipal and a personal scale. Cincinnati observed its centennial in 1888 by launching a hundred-year parcel, and Cleveland did the same in 1896. Following a reunion of Civil War veterans at Chicago’s Palmer House in 1879, the retired brigadier general John J. McNulta filled a glass bottle with mementos of the event, sealed it, and attached a note saying it should be kept unopened for a hundred years. One of the items was a cigar, donated by the guest of honor at the reunion, Ulysses S. Grant. Fulfilling McNulta’s wishes, when the bottle was opened in 1979, his three greatgrandsons smoked the cigar.

While each time capsule is usually associated with a specific organization, city, or other such entity, a few projects, starting in the 1930s, were planned with a more ambitious mission: preserving the record of an entire civilization. In 1936 Thornwell Jacobs, president of Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University, announced his plan to memorialize the world around him. The educator looked at ancient civilizations and found the view largely obscured. He noted with chagrin how much remained unknown about life thousands, even hundreds of years earlier. Egyptian tombs offer some insight, he observed, as do such sites as Pompeii and Herculaneum, but there are not enough of these “happy circumstances” to provide an adequate picture. For our own times we can do better, he concluded: “We … are the first generation equipped to perform our archeological duty to the future without the help of natural phenomena.” With the assistance of Jacobs, tomorrow’s historians would not have to struggle like those of today. He would take a large receptacle and fill it with enough artifacts and records to provide those distant scholars with the convenience of one-stop shopping.

Jacobs called his chamber the “Crypt of Civilization.” In the administration building on the Oglethorpe campus, a room at bedrock level was converted for the task. It took three years to collect and prepare the hundreds of items that made up that tightly packed museum. Daily life and popular culture of the 1930s emerge from the long inventory of appliances, implements, toys, apparel, and much more. There are an electric razor and a quart of beer, a piece of aluminum foil and a set of Lincoln Logs, six Artie Shaw records and eleven FDR speeches. Six thousand years of formal knowledge are ostensibly distilled into more than 640,000 microfilm pages.

When Jacobs began his project, he decreed that the door be unsealed in 6,177 years—the amount of time that had passed, by his precise reckoning, since the dawn of recorded history. He undertook the project to preserve a record of his civilization after its eventual, albeit distant, demise. But by the time of the sealing ceremony for the crypt, on May 25, 1940, the Nazi sweep through Western Europe was two weeks old, and Jacobs feared the end was nearly at hand. Addressing those who would receive his handiwork in 8113, he proclaimed, “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.”