Time in a Capsule

Posted December 15th, 2011 at 7:28 pm (UTC-4)
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In 1973, troubadour Jim Croce wrote and sang about “Time in a Bottle.”  If he could seal time in one, he explained in song, “The first thing that I’d like to do/ Is to save every day ’til eternity passes away/ Just to spend them with you.”

There have been plenty of similar love notes and other messages corked inside bottles and set adrift on the world’s seas, including those cast by the proverbial wretches stranded on desert islands.

The edifice of what looks like a mighty sturdy time capsule in Versailles, Pennsylvania.  Hope that's not a chimney coming out of it, though!  (daveynin, Flickr Creative Commons)

The edifice of what looks like a mighty sturdy time capsule in Versailles, Pennsylvania. Hope that's not a chimney coming out of it, though! (daveynin, Flickr Creative Commons)

But the rest of us typically choose something bigger and sturdier to catch time in a carefully sealed capsule.

These caches of memories, messages to future earthlings, and sometimes consumer devices representative of the day, are typically interred at cornerstone layings, topping-off ceremonies for great memorials, and the kickoffs of world’s fairs.

Then, usually, the time capsules just lie there, minding their own business, until some appointed day decades or centuries hence, when dignitaries eagerly retrieve them and pry them open.

It was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair that public-relations man George Edward Pendray, an amateur rocketeer and vice president of the American Interplanetary Society, is said to have coined the term “time capsule.”

Pendray's rather ominous-looking time capsule, or lozenge! (Westinghouse Electric, Wikipedia Commons)

Pendray's rather ominous-looking time capsule, or lozenge! (Westinghouse Electric, Wikipedia Commons)

Into the long, rounded metal cylinder on display at the Westinghouse Pavilion, he packed such items as a doll, a newsreel film, a vial of seeds, a microscope, and microfilmed copies of documents such as a Sears Roebuck department-store catalog.

Don’t bother to hang around for its opening, however.  The 1939 fair folks set that date for 5,000 years later, in 6939!

And what curiosities the items inside the capsule are likely to be then.

One of the most famous time capsules was fashioned out of an old swimming pool!

Contents of the Crypt of Civilization.  I imagine they'll seem kind of weird, even frightening, in 8113.  (Oglethorpe University)

Contents of the Crypt of Civilization. I imagine they'll seem kind of weird, even frightening, in 8113. (Oglethorpe University)

That’s right; it was a room-sized swimming pool with a roof, all lined with enamel and pitch, created in 1939 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.  Assorted artifacts representing 20th-Century life were placed inside the stainless-steel door of what was called the “Crypt of Civilization.”  You can see a photo of the contents to the left, but you’re also unlikely to see them in person at the capsule’s grand reopening, since it’s scheduled for A.D. 8113.

On that one, my money’s on the worms.

You’ll have to wait only a mere 1,000 years or so for another capsule, sealed in a helium-filled tube, somewhere beneath Amarillo, Texas.  It was buried there in 1968 to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of helium nearby in West Texas.

This is one of 10 “incredible” time-capsule projects selected by the Listverse history and trivia Web site, whose unnamed writer reported having made and buried one in his or her own backyard as a child.  Pretty sure the worms and voles have had their way with that one, too.

Here's the marker for what is, no doubt, a crude time capsule, buried in 1973 at the super-max-security Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay.  The inmate who buried the capsule wishes it opened in 2073.  (inajeep, Flickr Creative Commons)

Here's the marker for what is, no doubt, a crude time capsule, buried in 1973 at the super-max-security Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay. The inmate who buried the capsule wishes it opened in 2073. (inajeep, Flickr Creative Commons)

Another of the site’s Incredible 10, a 100-year capsule marking the fifth anniversary of a General Dynamics facility in San Diego, California, included a booklet of predictions by distinguished Americans and was scheduled for opening in 2063.  But it was destroyed in the 1990s when the building that housed it was torn down.

Copies of the booklet survive, however.  Among its prophesies: a guess by astronaut John Glenn that some sort of anti-gravity system will be in common use in 2063.  I guess that would wipe out the need for rocket launches.  We’ll just let anti-gravity suck future astronauts up into space.

If you’re still around just 14 years from now, in 2025, you can head to Seward, Nebraska, and check out the opening of my favorite among Listverse’s Incredible 10.  When local store owner Harold Keith Davisson buried a 45-ton vault in 1975, he claimed it was the world’s largest time capsule.  Perhaps he hadn’t heard of Egypt’s pyramids.  Inside are more than 5,000 items, including a man’s leisure suit, a pair of women’s bikini panties, and a Chevy Vega automobile!

“To keep up with [potentially] larger time capsules,” adds Listverse, “Davisson built a second [one], in 1983, directly over the first one.”  In it, “he entombed another car, a beat-up 1975 Datsun or Toyota (no one can remember which) to show what society does to a car in ten years.”

In 1976, President Gerald Ford traveled to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania — once the site of a bitter-cold winter encampment by future first president George Washington and his men during the American Revolution.

One of the Bicentennial Wagon Trains heading for Valley Forge with scrolls for an ill-fated time capsule.  (AP Photo)

One of the Bicentennial Wagon Trains heading for Valley Forge with scrolls for an ill-fated time capsule. (AP Photo)

Ford was there to help dedicate the “Bicentennial Wagon Train Time Capsule” that contained scrolls signed by 22 million Americans and carried to Valley Forge by horse and wagon from across the United States.

But when Ford arrived, he learned that the capsule had been stolen!  And so far as I can tell, it has never turned up.

One revealing item recovered from a time capsule — I don’t remember which or where any more — was an essay written by a University of Montana professor and futurist in 1900.   It envisioned Americans a century ahead, whooshing around the country inside pneumatic tubes.  Families would step into their personal containers, he projected, punch a few buttons, sit back and relax, and zoom off to grandma’s house or Disney World with no fear of accidents and no need to stop for gas.

Pneumatic tubes were once the rage, all right.  This big sucker, literally, moved mail at New York City's main post office.  (Library of Congress)

Pneumatic tubes were once the rage, all right. This big sucker, literally, moved mail at New York City's main post office. (Library of Congress)

Pneumatic tubes, you see, were among the hot technologies of 1900, thwipping money and sales slips to and fro in department stores.

My nominee for Time Capsule City, U.S.A., is Detroit, Michigan.  Capsules are buried in several places around historic Detroit, which was founded by French soldiers and voyageurs in 1701.

An 1867 capsule was unearthed beneath the city’s venerable Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which was being gingerly moved down the street to a new park in 2003.

Uncovered inside a block of solid granite in the process, according to the Detroit Free Press, was . . .

This is the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in its new location, minus its box of "goo."  (Dave Hogg, Wikipedia Commons)

“. . . a box of muck . . . little more than a 12-by-12-inch container filled with brackish water and muddy goo.”

But other letters, sealed in a copper box in 1900, survived in good shape and provide a fascinating glimpse into city life before Detroit became the world’s automobile capital.

In the last hours of that year, Mayor William Maybury closed the small box, packed with letters written by prominent citizens and addressed to the people of Detroit a century into the future.  The only other artifact, besides photographs and a copy of the city budget, in the “Detroit Century Box,” as it was called, was a single Indian-head penny.

On New Year’s Eve 2000, Dennis Archer, Detroit’s mayor that century later, pried open the box’s lid while kicking off a celebration of the city’s 300th anniversary.

As the letters inside were read before a rapt audience, the words of Mayor Maybury a century earlier reached across time:

How much faster are you traveling?  How much farther have you annihilated time and space?  And what agencies are you employing to which we are strangers?

That and other correspondences to the future from 1900 marveled that the human voice could zing across the country by telephone, and that travelers from Detroit could reach distant New York City by train in just 20 hours.

May we be permitted to express one supreme hope — that whatever failures the coming century may have in the progress of things material, you may be conscious when the century is over that, as a nation, people, and city, you have grown in righteousness, for it is this that exalts a nation.

Visitors at Orchestra Hall in Detroit view some of the contents of the "Century Box."  (Paul Warner/AP Photo)

James Scripps, founder of one of Detroit’s daily newspapers, wrote another letter found inside the Century Box.  In it, he likened the city, which was just emerging as a Great Lakes port, to Emperor Constantine’s capital — Constantinople — on the Black Sea.  But Scripps wrote that the Roman emperor did not have access to the iron, copper, and timber that were within easy reach of Detroit.  “If a great metropolis were possible at Constantinople,” Scripps wrote, “how much more so at Detroit?”

“I prophesy,” Scripps concluded, “that a century hence the belt embraced between the 38th and 43rd degrees of latitude, and extending from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River, will be the most densely populated region in the world.”

Not exactly, as it turned out, for the band from the Middle Atlantic to the Mississippi that runs through Detroit is nowhere near as populated as America’s upper Eastern Seaboard, parts of Japan, or many other congested slices of the world.

According to Maud Lyon, executive director of Detroit 300 — a group that organized the 300th-anniversary festivities at the turn of the 21st Century, the copper time capsule from 1900 had been stored, safe and dry, in the city treasurer’s vault, and its contents survived nicely.

Mowtown Records, or "Hitsville U.S.A.," the premier venue for black recording artists, certainly wasn't envisioned by the time capsule seers in 1900, when Detroit was nearly 100 percent white.  (Chris Butcher, Wikipedia Commons)

They didn’t lose it, and it didn’t get wet.  And the letters in it are in fine condition.  We now know all of the amazing things that have happened — the technological changes in Detroit and around the world but also in particular the founding of the United Auto Workers’ Union here in southeastern Michigan, Detroit’s role as the arsenal of democracy during World War Two, the ‘Motown Sound’ in music during the 1960s, the civil-rights movement and Detroit’s leading role in that.  It’s been really fascinating to get a firsthand feeling of how different the times were in 1900.

Dennis Zembala was the Detroit Museums’ executive director when the capsule was opened.  “There was a great letter by a Judge Straker, who was an African-American attorney and judge at the time,” Zembala told me.  “This surprised a lot of our people, that an African American held that kind of a position back then.  And it was a very moving letter.  It referred to all of the advances that the ‘colored race’ — to use his term — and the fact that they were equal under the law.  And he looked forward to the 20th Century as a period when he hoped that ‘the demon of prejudice would have no place in the beautiful city by the straits.’”

Judge Straker would likely have been saddened to learn what became of his forecast.  Racism would abound in housing and industry in 20th-Century Detroit, and an outbreak of looting, rioting, and arson would prove so widespread in 1967 that it sparked massive “white flight” to the suburbs.  More than 98 percent white in 1900, Detroit city was almost 80 percent black when the capsule left by its citizens was opened.

This is a visual representation of the progression of cellphones.  No doubt it was one of the bigger ones that went into Detroit's "Treasure Chest" in 2001.  (anders, Wikipedia Commons)

Into the same treasurer’s vault in 2001, Detroit 300 officials would place TWO time boxes, to be opened on New Year’s Eve a century thence.  One, the “Mayor’s Tricentennial Time Capsule,” held the customary letters to the future plus digital photos of those in attendance at the ceremony.  The other, a “Tricentennial Treasure Chest,” included items suggested by winners of a local contest, such as a cellular phone and 50 video recordings.  I’d love to be around in 2101 to see if those who open the boxes can rustle up any gear that will operate these gadgets of today.

Among the items packed in the Mayor’s Tricentennial box is a letter of greeting from Robert J. Duggan, the pastor of Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church.  In it, he details the history of the church, which was the first permanent structure to be built in Detroit.  He describes waves of Irish and Hispanic immigration and writes, ruefully, “Riots, flight to the suburbs, urban blight, recessions, unemployment are a few of the major factors that greatly impacted Ste. Anne’s and the greater Detroit Metro community during the past four decades.  Renewal has been painstakingly slow.  Nonethless, positive signs are visible throughout the city.”

And100 years from now?  Father Duggan writes, “We may well have journeyed to other planets, galaxies, universes.  As we reach outer space, we also are reaching the inner space of quantum physics, quantum theology, quantum spirituality.  I pray we rediscover the worth of the self in the midst of family, and that all families, in all cities, in all nations, in all races, religions and cultures celebrate deeper unity, all children of God.”

I’m pretty sure that most visions of life 100, 1,000, or 5,000 years from now, placed in the time capsules of today, will be less sanguine than those of a century ago, when Uncle Sam was snapping his suspenders in pride as the United States spread its power and influence across the globe.

I don't give the contents of this homemade time capsule much chance of survival.  (woodleywonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons)

I don't give the contents of this homemade time capsule much chance of survival. (woodleywonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons)

 

No one knows how many time capsules, including shoeboxes, lie safe and snug — or ajar and moldering — beneath American soil.

Let’s hope those who buried them left good notes and directions, pirate’s treasure-map fashion, as to exactly WHERE the capsules can be located.  The American landscape and what’s built upon it changes dramatically over the years, and many, many time capsules that we have gone to dig up, with great fanfare, simply couldn’t be found.

This sort of thing, and the muddy goo problem they encountered in Detroit, are the risks when you’re consigning historical treasures to the earth.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Sanguine. Cheery, optimistic, taking a rosy view of events or the future.

Voyageurs. Although this literally translates from the French as simply “voyagers,” it has a specific historical meaning, tied to the French boatmen who transported goods and people among forts and trading posts in early Canada and north-central America’s Great Lakes.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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