- Historic Sites
Americans have been launching time capsules into the future for over a century now, and today we’re creating more than ever. Why is it that so few reach their destination? And that so many merely bore their recipients?
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
The mood had been a good deal brighter two years earlier, when the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company began planning its participation in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The company had been seeking a way to burnish its image as a “forward-looking” institution. G. Edward Pendray, the public relations executive in charge of bringing Westinghouse to the fair, was familiar with preparations for the Crypt of Civilization; indeed, before joining Westinghouse, he had written a public appeal calling for support of the venture. Now he would convert a simple cornerstone dedication for the Westinghouse pavilion into an undertaking of similarly grand and far-reaching scope. Since their purpose is to remain motionless, often for eons, other time capsules, before and since, have usually been drab canisters. But the fair was a sort of climax to the great age of streamlining, so Pendray’s capsule, which he got ready in just three months, took the form of a sleek seven-and-a-half-foot torpedo to be sealed until the year 6939. It was lowered fifty feet into its vault beneath Flushing Meadow at exactly noon on September 23, 1938, the autumnal equinox. The Westinghouse chairman, Andrew W. Robertson, said to the assembled crowd, “May the Time Capsule sleep well! When it is awakened, five thousand years from now, may its contents be found a suitable gift to our far-off descendants!”
The most lasting legacy of the Westinghouse project is its name: It was the first “time capsule” to be called that.
The slogan of the fair was “the world of tomorrow”; the Westinghouse time capsule aimed the national gaze at a point fifty centuries away. The Crypt of Civilization was intended to last longer, and it was far larger. But no other capsule had been more celebrated at the time of its creation than the Westinghouse cylinder, and no other remained more vividly in the public consciousness years after it was sealed away. Fairgoers thronged to peer at it deep in its “immortal well,” which would be filled tight at the fair’s end, and they studled a replica of its contents in a glass tube that can be studied still, at the George Westinghouse Museum in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.
The time capsule included messages to the “Futurians” from the physicists Albert Einstein, Robert A. Millikan, and Karl T. Compton, who was MIT’s president, and from the Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann as well as from Oglethorpe’s Thornwell Jacobs. After describing both the achievements and perils of his age, Einstein closed by writing, “I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.” The capsule also contained a newsreel created for the occasion, a microfilm “essay” of twenty-two thousand pages, seventy-five samples of textiles and other materials, and thirty-five “small articles of common use.” A glance at the list suggests how much has changed in little more than sixty years. Who today appreciates the song that went “Flat-foot floogie with a floy floy”? The words and music are in the capsule. So are a slide rule and a Lilly Daché woman’s hat. Yet some items speak of continuity. The Bible endures, and so does Mickey Mouse.
Once the torpedo itself was out of view, the most evident, continuing legacy of Pendray’s project was the name he gave it. Before 1938 there had been the “safe” and the “box” in Philadelphia, a “casket” in Cleveland, the “crypt” (or, as Jacobs sometimes termed it, the “epitome") in Atlanta. But Pendray called his repository a “time capsule,” and after the New York World’s Fair, that became the universal label. The outcome might have been different if Pendray had stayed with his original idea. Considering the thing’s shape, he was going to call it the “Time Bomb.”
At the end of World War II, Westinghouse gave some thought to digging up the time capsule 4,994 years ahead of schedule and adding a description of the atomic bomb. Nothing came of that idea, but by 1964 Westinghouse was back in the time-capsule business. Another New York World’s Fair provided the chance to augment the earlier venture. The company created a new capsule, the same size and shape, and buried it near the first. This time the artifacts included credit cards, birth control pills, a plastic heart valve, a Beatles record, and a piece of the re-entry shield from Scott Carpenter’s Mercury spacecraft. Both capsules are to be opened at the same time in 6939.
Montreal’s Expo ’67 had a hundred-year time capsule. The Osaka Japan Expo ’70 worked up an elaborate affair: twin kettleshaped containers, each weighing more than two metric tons, with identical contents. One is to remain sealed for five thousand years, the other is to be opened for periodic checks every century.
Despite these and many others worldwide, time capsules are still “a peculiarly American phenomenon,” says the science writer Dava Sobel. “Who else but a world power with an embarrassingly short past could hit on such an idea? After all, when you encapsulate the essence of an era and declare that the container can’t be opened for millenniums, abracadabra—you’ve made instant history out of your present.”