- 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
Perhaps nowhere was this American zeal more evident than in Juneau, Alaska, in 1994. Though it’s the state capital, Juneau still retains an intimate, close-knit atmosphere, and when a hundred-year time capsule was proposed, it became a project for that whole town. No one knows how many items were contributed, but they number in the thousands, each one constituting a small piece in the mosaic of life in Juneau. Most are common things: restaurant menus, a cigarette pack, golf balls, a Sony Walkman. To house it all, project organizers came up with a novel variation on the concept, a time capsule with a view. A room in the lobby of a government building was converted for the purpose. The room has two plate-glass windows and is lighted with bulbs that can be changed from the outside. The time capsule therefore is truly sealed, and much of its contents are hidden in boxes and other containers, so Juneau residents of 2094 will have lots to explore when they go inside. But plenty of the items are visible from the outside through those windows. So far, after only a few years, most of them still look familiar, but visitors will be able to watch as they slowly turn into relics.
Traveling through time turns out to be a treacherous journey; most capsules fail in their mission.
Time capsules are extending into new realms, from outer space to inner space to Cyberspace. NASA has placed plaques, phonograph records, and other devices on interstellar probes to show distant civilizations what earth dwellers are like. A Japanese-led international research team plans to seed time capsules under the surface of Antarctica and, after that, on the moon. The advent of the Internet has spawned a number of computer-based ventures. MIT’s Sloan School of Management took digital samples of text, video, and sound, representing the world as seen on-line in early 1999, encrypted them, and sealed the result on the school’s Web site. In keeping with the pace at which the Internet evolves, this virtual time capsule is to be opened after just five years.
Then there are the personal time capsules. Michael Orelove, who led the huge Juneau effort, also creates his own time capsule each year and opens it twenty years later. Andy Warhol did much the same thing, though with much greater frequency, eventually filling more than six hundred boxes. All the detritus of an artist’s life is preserved: the calendars, place cards, letters, exhibition announcements, door-prize tickets, hotel bills, airline tickets, and on and on. Warhoi kept a box by his desk, and when it was filled, an assistant would seal it and he would start on the next one. The artist’s boxes survived him. They are now part of the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Amid all this enthusiasm for time capsules grand and modest, one uncomfortable truth is often overlooked: Most fail in their mission. Traveling through time, it turns out, is a treacherous journey, and the attrition rate is daunting. Many of the vessels fall victim to the elements. When the cornerstone of the Empire State Building was dedicated on September 9, 1930, a copper box was placed within it, containing, as Al Smith announced, “certain articles of value indicating the trend of the time. If this building is ever demolished to make way for a greater building, the people of that day can read pretty accurately the history of this day.” Contrary to Smith’s expectation, the building far outlasted the time capsule. About fifty years later, in preparation for an anniversary celebration, the box was removed. It had filled with water, which had destroyed most of its contents.
Another risk is mischief. The celebration of Indian Independence Day in 1973 included burial of a 280-pound time capsule, which included portraits of national heroes and a lengthy history of India since independence. The time capsule was supposed to remain sealed for ‘five thousand years, but only a few years later a new government had the capsule unearthed because of certain “inaccuracies” in the history. A U.S. Bicentennial time capsule never even made it into the ground. After a wagon train toured the nation, gathering the signatures of twenty-two million Americans, the scrolls were supposed to be buried in a time capsule at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, with President Gerald Ford presiding. But the capsule was stolen out of a van at the burial site.
The committee members charged with burying Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania’s capsule all died without saying where they had put it.
Once a time capsule disappears from view, its fate usually is to never be seen again. The city of Corona, California, for example, has managed to lose seventeen of them. When Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, resolved to bury a town time capsule, the project was entrusted to a committee drawn from the local gentry. Now all of them are dead, and no one knows where they put it. To help prevent such losses, the International Time Capsule Society maintains a registry in which organizations and individuals can record locations and other information about their time capsules.