Capsule History

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But this safeguard provides no protection against one more pitfall: Of the time capsules that do survive to be opened, many turn out to be disappointing. When that time capsule I had noticed at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal was opened in 1983, an eager crowd gathered for the occasion. They were rewarded with seven old railroad timetables, some yellowed local newspapers, congratulatory letters from politicians, and a typed history of the terminal.

Given all the effort put into time capsules, it’s surprising how frequently the creators misjudge their audiences. For example, two staples of time-capsule collections, coins and newspapers, are generally available elsewhere, and rosters of committees and minutes of meetings do little to stir the imagination generations later.

Items of daily use and popular culture make more of an impact. When Pendray was planning the Westinghouse time capsule, he consulted various authorities about what to include. One scientist replied disdainfully, “Who in 5,000 years’ time will care about Howard Hughes or college football or fashion shows or Donald Duck or women’s hats or cigarettes or textiles or fountain pens?” But those are exactly the sorts of things that do interest anyone who likes to imagine what life was like in past eras.

When time capsules contain written messages, those are usually the items most treasured; despite the fact that these words have been composed for posterity, they often have an appealing intimacy. One such letter was unearthed in St. Louis in 1996. During the demolition of the building that had housed the A. S. Aloe Company, a surgical-supply firm, a well-preserved time capsule was recovered from the cornerstone. It contained catalogues, product descriptions, medical journals, and the like, all immaculate but generally uninspiring. At the top, though, was a poignant greeting that the company president, Howard F. Baer, had composed in September 1940, at the time of the London blitz: “It is difficult to write this letter, partly because I do not know when you will read it—but partly also because one must always feel somewhat self-conscious about posterity. There is the feeling that after all one probably has very little to say that will interest the yet several generations unborn.

“Were there at this moment any real feeling of security as to any future, this letter would be easier. But even as I write, that part of the world which means most to us (Europe and North America) is in the throes of what is apparently some kind of life and death struggle. It is even possible that before this letter can be placed inside the cornerstone England will have fallen. We hope not. Will you then, as you read this, one hundred, two hundred years from now, yawn over 1940 and its little troubles? Will there be yet an England? Will wars be obsolete perhaps because of scientific progress making war even more terrible than now? …

“Will there be any business such as ours—any profit motive; or will you live in a planned society with intelligently worked out wealth and goods distribution? It does not perhaps greatly matter. You will live and laugh and learn and cry as we do. We have enjoyed our work and had a zest for it. No more can you do, though you may be much healthier than we—better fed and more scientifically bred. And I think you will admit that the mere fact that we build here and now a new building when aerial bombs are laying waste London and Berlin and when some of us feel that there may be no future for free men, indicates that the human spirit is incurably optimistic.

“May it be so with you as with us!”

Baer’s eloquent message suggests the essential thing about time capsules: They help fulfill the worthwhile desire to leave a legacy—though they foster a few unrealistic expectations along the way. Yes, it’s presumptuous to imagine that we can engineer a truly representative sample of our civilization; despite the good intentions of Thornwell Jacobs and others, future historians and archeologists will still have to root around in our leavings the old-fashioned way. But for those lucky enough to open one, a time capsule provides a true link with the past, however imperfect. And whether or not it survives to reach the intended recipients, launching one starts people thinking about what the past and future mean to them. Along with the trinkets and clippings and snapshots, time capsules convey an appreciation of preservation and life’s continuum. “For the truth is that at some level, whether it’s conscious or not,” writes the sociologist Albert Bergesen, “time capsules are intended less as messages from ourselves to the future than as messages from ourselves to ourselves.”