World’s Fair Time Capsule, 1938
A time capsule, buried on the site of the New York World’s Fair by the Westinghouse Corporation in 1938, to be opened in 5,000 years, is a snapshot in time and a document that changed the world.
Let’s get metaphysical for a moment, shall we? All physical objects are space-time phenomena; they occupy space and have a finite lifespan, big and small, long and short, from the Great Pyramid and the negative handprints in the Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia to last week’s grocery list I already recycled.
All objects can also be “documents,” often unintentionally. My grocery list is of minimal interest to me after I get home, of even less interest to you, but 100 years from now, it might provide insight into 21st century shopping practices, eating habits, domestic life or my fondness for dark chocolate. Mostly these objects’ lifespans take their own courses, but in some cases they can be prolonged by accident or design, including being put away and hopefully preserved, potentially to better and more purposefully inform an unimaginably distant future.
A document that changed the world: a time capsule, buried on the site of the New York World’s Fair by the Westinghouse Corporation, to be opened in 5,000 years, 1938.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School, and I acknowledge this episode is slightly premature; any “world changing” to be done here is mostly about 4,900 years in the future, so I’m taking my opportunity now. Let’s also acknowledge that “time capsule” – a phrase originally coined for this project – is a misnomer. It’s no more possible to encapsulate time than it is light or heat or life, it flows as it does and the best we can hope for is to overcome or compensate for its effects. Which doesn’t stop people from being fascinated by the prospect, as we are with time itself. By my count, the OED entry for “time” describes 40 primary and secondary senses of the word and over 350 phrases from “about time” to “with time.”
Objects survive in all kinds of ways; accidentally left in walls, attics, unused spaces, as well as unintended circumstances: think Pompeii, Chernobyl, the Titanic. They also survive in straightforward ways, collected and preserved in cultural heritage repositories like museums, archives and libraries, so they can be used, displayed, or studied.
Putting together a bunch of stuff and sticking it away, hidden from view, is another matter. That’s intentional too but now those objects are being re-characterized as exemplars of their time or society, meant to affect how a future world should remember, perceive and understand us.
Naturally, people argue over the earliest examples, apart from the ancient practices of sanctifying buildings by installing objects in foundations; a box placed in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795 by Samuel Adams, unearthed and added to in 1855 and reopened in 2015 contained a plaque and coins going back to 1652, though there was no specific time nor retrieval strategy in mind. The Philadelphia Exhibition celebrated the American centennial in 1876 with a “Century Safe,” which was opened on schedule for the bicentennial, and that commemorative example continued in various cities after ever since.
Activity seemed to pick up in the 1930s. The Crypt of Civilization – quite grand if also morbid – is based at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, when their president mused, while researching ancient history, that preserving contemporary objects would be of great value to future historians. At least in those days, university presidential whims were indulged, and the Crypt, a 20x20x10 former swimming pool underneath Pheobe Hearst Hall, came to fruition in 1940, and now the inevitable International Time Capsule Society is headquartered there as well.
The one, however, that stands out among the rest, was buried in the way such things are, with great fanfare and ceremony and the tolling of a Chinese gong – borrowed from Chinatown for the purpose – in front of what would be the Westinghouse Building of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, themed the World of Tomorrow, at high noon, the exact moment, give or take a minute, of the autumnal equinox, on September 23, 1938, on the day the New York Times front page bore the headline “Chamberlain Meets Hitler; Talks to Continue Today; New Government in Prague.” Within the week, he will head home waving the Munich Declaration, proclaim “peace in our time,” Germany will march into the Sudetenland and the world will be plunged into yet another world war.
The Times provided a predictably serious and respectful piece on the burial, while the Washington Post had a bit more fun in the runup, referring to the capsule as a “Tut-Like Tomb,” suggesting inclusions such as a horse racing program, a picture of a drug store window, an Irish Sweepstakes ticket, or a hamburger. They might have been on to something. We were also treated to a vignette of future archaeologists Owlf and Pipwir surveying and misunderstanding the contents, and another speculating on the likelihood that the 70th century might not care about or need the capsule, as they might be able to “dial the proper light wave” to find out everything they wanted to know about 1938. Hmmm.
But let’s stay in those last golden days of innocence. As part of a long-standing campaign to spruce up their public image, Westinghouse PR man G. Edward Pendray while on vacation dreamt up the idea of building and burying a “time bomb” (or maybe “vessel” or “container” or “can”) at the laying of the cornerstone of their Fair building, and viewing it through a periscope became one of the key attractions of the Fair. Ideas for miniature souvenir capsules to be sold to defray the $1,000 cost of the project somehow went nowhere, nor sadly the notion of marketing $30 versions to be buried with people in their caskets.
As with any such project, they then had certain fundamental questions to answer: what to put in, where to put it, how to keep it safe, and how to get it unput.
The contents are lovingly enumerated in a little booklet, which also describes the painstaking processes of developing the new copper alloy to protect the torpedo-shaped capsule, 7½ feet long and 8 3/8” in diameter, buried 50 feet deep in marshy soil, covered in pitch and concrete to deter 45th century tomb robbers who might want the slide rule or the can opener or the 1937 Yearbook of Dentistry. It further extols all the technological wizardry of Pyrex and wax and nitrogen and whatnot to keep the contents intact. The Time Capsule Committee assembled several dozen items of common use, samples of industrial materials, some certificates, and an extensive microfilm library and newsreels necessitating instructions on how to build devices to view those, along with a quite elaborate and quite impenetrable “guide to the English language” which I can’t imagine will leave our descendants much the wiser about how we talk.
If they do, they’ll find some 10 million words: dictionaries, magazines, newspapers, lots of encyclopedia articles with a heavy emphasis on science and business, Gone With the Wind airline timetables, and the Sears Roebuck catalog. The only physical book is, inevitably, the Bible. I imagine some of the other objects will be of more interest: an alarm clock, nail file, telephone, toys (a car for boys and a doll for girls), a baseball, a toothbrush and tooth powder.
And a hat. Much is made, in multiple places including press coverage at the time, of the inclusion of a ladies’ hat specially designed for the capsule and stuffed with surgical cotton to protect its shape, placed at the top so it doesn’t get crushed. I hope to heaven that hat survives, because the only woman I can clearly identify as participating in any substantive way in this whole business is its designer, Lilly Daché.
The point of the exercise, though, is to get it retrieved, 5,000 years on, so clearly something more than circling a date on a calendar will suffice. Their solution was to create a Book of Record, specially printed using ultra high quality paper and ink and with specially designed type, hand sewn and all that; copies were distributed to “libraries, museums, monasteries, convents, lamaseries, temples and other safe repositories throughout the world.” Currently, about 300 of the 3,650 copies can be found in library collections, as well as in the Internet Archive, though my money’s on the print ones for durability. There’s several pages of intricate instructions, multiple dating systems, geopositioning information, planetary alignments and such to indicate the fated time and place and how to open it safely, which if they haven’t yet dug up the guide to understanding English one wonders how that will work but never mind – and besides, as they say, if it’s somehow forgotten, “we may depend on the perennial curiosity and the digging and burrowing habits of the human race, to unearth it sooner or later.” I feel better already.
Even though much of this is comical now, there’s a remarkably optimistic high-mindedness throughout you can’t help admiring, especially in the face of what they must surely have known was coming. Maybe? that explains it – in a world likely spinning out of control, there’s an appeal in the idea of sealing away a slice of today, in the hopes of getting through a bad tomorrow for a better day after tomorrow.
If you’re still undaunted, numerous guidelines and instructions, from professional associations, institutions, and companies selling do-it-yourself capsules, lay out the kinds of objects and materials to avoid – no food or plants understandably, rubber releases sulfur, wood gives off acid, textiles should be free of insects, electronics raise questions of power supply and the stability of media, and so on. One author has described these as a posed portrait in contrast to the candid picture that might otherwise from random objects’ survival. Decisions of what to include necessarily imply decisions of what not to include, and as ever who gets to make those decisions and how and why are an inextricable aspect of any such endeavor, saying at least as much about the society that produces a time capsule as do the contents.
Why put it away, in a container? Why bury it? (Hint: You shouldn’t.) Why not put these things out in the open for people to see and learn from every day? Well, sure, but where’s the fun in that? That’s a museum case or a diorama, those are a dime a dozen. A time capsule provides the thrill of concealment and mystery, the kind of birthday-present surprise which adds that little frisson of excitement to putting away a box for a generation or two and hoping for the best.
So what’s the end of the story? Well, like with any good time capsule, we don’t know and we won’t know for something like 1.8 million days and yes, it’s still there, under what is now Flushing Meadows Park, waiting. Just about any time capsule story hinges on one simple word: if. If it survives intact, if it’s remembered, if it’s found and successfully opened. Sadly, because this was buried a year early, they couldn’t include one of the signature keepsakes from the 1939 Fair, small pins from the General Motors Futurama exhibit of a utopian 1960 America that read, simply, “I have seen the future.” Time capsules are intended to go the other way around – so that if they work, the future can see us.