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The Atlantic Monthly | July 1987
ot long ago the
townspeople of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, decided that in
commemoration of the community's centennial, the contents of a time
capsule buried twenty-five years earlier should be exhumed and
examined. Unfortunately, the time capsule had been laid to rest by a
select committee of Wilkinsburg citizens, all of whom are now dead.
Harold J. ("Chick") Ake, eighty-seven, who was a member of the
Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce at the time, recalls that the
committee met in secret session to decide where to bury the time
capsule and that subsequently they "didn't tell anyone." Ake thought
they might have put it underneath the flower beds "down there in
front of the railroad station in the circle," but a day of digging
turned up nothing. Chick Ake went home and wrote in the diary he has
kept since 1915: "Oh, well." The time capsule still has not been
"My own rough estimate is that several thousand time capsules are ceremoniously squirreled away and forgotten for every one that successfully conveys its cargo into the hands of a future generation"
by Albert Bergesen
Time capsules almost never are. I am a sociologist, and recently,
with the help of an archaeologist colleague, William Rathje, I
actually looked into the matter. We got in touch with the Smithsonian
Institution's Division of Engineering and Industries, which for some
reason keeps track of such things, and asked for every printed
reference to time capsules they could find. There were a lot of
references, and tracking down the articles took some time.
Eventually, though, we had two stacks: one, three or four inches
high, consisting of articles about time capsules being interred; the
other, a couple of angstroms in height, consisting of articles about
time capsules being opened. Somehow, the most compelling aspect of
time capsules seems to be the burying of them, the marking of our
spot. The few time capsules that somehow manage to get opened have
almost always been turned up by accident, and they almost never
contain items of much interest or value, or tell us anything about
the past that we might actually care to know. My own rough estimate
is that several thousand time capsules are ceremoniously squirreled
away and forgotten for every one that successfully conveys its cargo
into the hands of a future generation.
Even so, it seems to me, most time capsules do serve their purpose.
For the truth is that at some level, whether it's conscious or not,
time capsules are intended less as messages from ourselves to the
future than as messages from ourselves to ourselves. In its most
common and rudimentary form, the time capsule offers the sustaining,
if ultimately illusory, reassurance that those associated with its
contents have won a small niche in history. Behind the most ambitious
of time capsules may lie impulses cautionary or self-congratulatory,
naively didactic or cynically commercial.
f one includes the
practice of lodging odds and ends in the cornerstones of buildings,
then the origins of the time capsule go back at least to ancient
Babylon. But the golden age of time capsules, in which we are living
now, began in 1938, when Thornwell Jacobs sealed his 2,000-cubic-foot
"Crypt of Civilization"—a kind of Noah's Ark of Depression-era
knowledge and technology beneath the administration building of
Oglethorpe University, in Georgia, and directed that it not be opened
until A.D. 8113. (The date was chosen because it was as far in the
future as the first recorded date in history was in the past.) The
term time capsule was coined not long after, by the
Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, to denote a
torpedo-shaped container seven and a half feet long that was buried
fifty feet below Flushing Meadow in connection with the 1939 New York
World's Fair. Westinghouse, which was lagging badly behind its chief
rival, General Electric, created the time capsule to attract
publicity and spur sales. The capsule, meant to be opened in A.D.
6939, was constructed of a special alloy and Pyrex glass. Inside,
protected by an atmosphere of inert gas, are some forty common
household artifacts; a collection of metals, textiles, and seeds; ten
million words and a thousand illustrations on microfilm; and a grim
letter from Albert Einstein, in which he wrote, "People living in
different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so
that also for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must
live in fear and terror." By the early 1950s the inhumation of time
capsules had become, like everything else in America, a mass
phenomenon—a consequence, perhaps, of the psychological shadow
cast by Hiroshima, although the trend also correlated with the
postwar upsurge in building permits.
hornwell Jacobs wrote, "We
... are the first generation equipped to perform our
archaeological duty to the future." In fact doing one's
archaeological duty is at once senseless and impossible. Even if
materials did not decay and sites did not vanish, we lack the
necessary perspective to judge what is most important about ourselves
and our society—and the necessary prescience to anticipate what
those in the future may most want to find out. One day last year, at
the Campbell Plaza shopping mall in Tucson, where I live, the public
was invited to witness a rare event—the opening of a time
capsule. Campbell Plaza was the first air-conditioned strip mall in
the United States, and a time capsule had been buried there at its
grand opening, a quarter of a century ago. A former mayor was on hand
as the master of ceremonies, and television crews recorded the
proceedings. The occasion turned out to be something of a
disappointment, however. When extracted from its repository, the
Campbell Plaza time capsule was revealed to contain nothing but a few
crumbling local newspapers and some business cards. Oh, well. What no
one seemed to realize was that the truly significant time capsule was
the one the crowd had been standing in—Campbell Plaza itself.
Embedded in its concrete, asphalt, and plastic is the tale of the
transformation of the American city by the automobile.
I hope that up in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, the townspeople take
heart and consider that the time capsule most worth having may be not
the one they've failed to find but the one Chick Ake has been writing
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The Atlantic Monthly; July 1987;
Oh, Well; Volume 260, No. 1; page 16.