Oh, Well

"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"

Not 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 found.

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.

If 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.

Thornwell 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 since 1915.