Time capsules are vehicles for self-commemoration, a means to ensure that future anthropologists, scientists, and historians include us in the stories they tell. Other forms of art share this same lofty goal, as when Walt Whitman declares in the opening of “Song of Myself” (1855):
I CELEBRATE myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
But time capsules go a step further by insisting upon the actual atoms rather than just the words used to describe them. They celebrate the talismanic quality of their objects, packaged to deliver the vicarious experience of having occupied a particular cultural moment: the belief that these time-bound materials of timelessness speak for themselves.
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The Crypt of Civilization, sealed in the bedrock underneath Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, effectively launched the modern time capsule movement in 1936. Thornwell Jacobs, inspired by the Egyptian tomb openings in the 1920s, argued that because 6,177 years had passed since the establishment of the Egyptian calendar, his own Crypt should be opened 6,177 years in the future. Jacobs’s rationale suggests the importance of narrative in our handling of deep time, specifically our need to impose a quantifiable beginning, middle, and end. It becomes a story with ourselves perpetually at its center.
The Crypt, along with the 1939 World’s Fair Westinghouse capsule originally termed a “time bomb,” are the two best known capsules of the pre-war era. Both contain articles selected by the then National Bureau of Standards. Among those found in the Crypt are seed samples, dental floss, a fake bird, six Artie Shaw recordings, a Lionel model train, and a doll. The Westinghouse capsule further divides its items into five categories: small articles of common use, textiles and materials, miscellaneous, essays on microfilm, and RKO newsreels—all chosen to represent 20th century American life. To single out these items is also to assume they will expire. Otherwise, what’s the point?
If all encapsulated objects are memento mori, then what about the technologies used to experience them? Won’t they, too, disappear? With this in mind, the Westinghouse capsule includes instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer and a motion picture projector. Even better is the Crypt’s “language integrator,” a hand-powered device designed to teach 1,500 words of Basic English using the “Nickelodeon principle.” (How it actually works is something of a mystery now that the papers detailing its operation have been lost to time.) When objects become disassociated from their attending technologies we lose entire worlds.
One of the defining characteristics of a time capsule is that its date of reopening is set in advance. Otherwise, how would one know what to put inside? Let’s say you’re choosing a single item to be placed in a capsule opened 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now: The object should be different in each case, and that difference will have everything to do with what you imagine life to be like in each of those futures. Time capsules are about futurity, about our sincere belief that we author our own present by providing the future with the means to author its past.