One of the things I love most about archives is the way they allow us to connect directly with the past. When I come across something interesting, I feel as though I’ve discovered a piece of hidden truth or insight that has been left just for me. However, as fortunate as we are to have records and documents from previous eras at our fingertips, we only have as much or as little as someone decided to leave behind. As we become more aware of the lifetimes that have preceded us and begin to recognize our own potential legacies, we have gotten more involved in influencing what future generations discover about us. The importance of leaving behind an accurate record has manifested itself in several ways—one of which is the creation of time capsules. The issue clearly mattered to a man named Thornwell Jacobs who, 75 years ago, published an article in the November issue of Scientific American proposing the creation of a time capsule that would preserve a record of civilization in 1936.
Jacobs (pictured above) was a professor, clergyman and writer, and refounded Oglethorpe University in Atlanta in 1915 after it had been laid to waste by the Civil War. While researching and teaching about ancient cultures, Jacobs was struck with the lack of available information on past civilizations. This led him to the idea of creating a running record of civilization and everyday life, lessening the struggles of future historians. Jacobs did not want to rely on "happy circumstance," such as the extreme dryness of Egypt, which helped preserve artifacts there, to enable our civilization to be studied by future generations. He believed it was our "archaeological duty to the future" to produce a record of daily life. Thus, the "Crypt of Civilization" was born.
The purpose of the project was to "make available to some civilization now unthought of, and still far in the future, the running story of life, manners, and customs of the present civilization." Jacobs turned to Scientific American for help in announcing his idea and to solicit suggestions and aid from scientists, industry leaders, and philanthropists. He proposed some obvious methods of presenting information about our lives—books, motion pictures, phonographic records—but also recognized the need to include everyday objects like food, recreational equipment, furniture, automobiles, machines, toys, and so on.
The site proposed for the preservation project was in the basement of Phoebe Hearst Hall at Oglethorpe University. The basement was constructed in granite and covered in slate and had once contained a swimming pool, which left behind a waterproof lining. The underground chamber measured twenty feet long, ten feet wide, and ten feet high. Porcelain was used to line the granite walls. After conferring with the U.S. Bureau of Standards, Jacobs decided the best way to preserve items would be to place them in steel receptacles with glass linings, filled with inert gas of nitrogen to prevent oxidation and aging. The foundation of the building rests on granite bedrock of the Appalachian Mountains, which, Jacobs felt, would stand the test of time.
Jacobs proposed the crypt be opened in the year 8113. He arrived at this date by determining the first fixed year in history to be 4241 B.C. (the establishment of the Egyptian calendar) and counting the number of years that had passed between then and 1936—6,177 years. Therefore, allowing the same amount of time to pass would mean the crypt would be opened in 8113 A.D. After 4 years of preparation, the crypt was officially sealed on May 28, 1940.
Jacobs appointed photographer and inventor Thomas Kimmwood Peters (below) "archivist of the crypt" in 1937. From 1937 to 1940, Peters and a team of students undertook a project to create a microfilm of over 640,000 pages from more than 800 works on the arts and sciences, and to gather various motion picture and voice recordings, including speeches by Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Chamberlain, as well as the voices of Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller.
Electronic machines, microreaders, and projectors were placed in the crypt, as well as a wind-powered electrical generator and a seven-power magnifier if the machines stopped functioning. At the very entrance of the crypt was placed a machine that aided the learning of the English language. Other interesting items included recordings of bird songs; a container of beer; a plastic beetle ornament; a vanity make-up mirror with light; a set of Lincoln Logs; a set of male and female mannequins; a package containing six miniature panties, five miniature shirts, and three drawers; five television tubes; a fly swatter; a piece of sheet music; a potato masher; a sample of soap in the shape of a bull; six Artie Shaw recordings; and a sample of gold mesh. If you think anything from this list sounds strange or outdated and wonder what it has to do with civilization, just remember that the crypt has only been sealed for 71 of its proposed 6,177 years. A full list of the crypt’s contents can be found here.
Around the same time that Jacobs was preparing his "crypt," the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company was creating their own collection of items to preserve as part of a promotional event for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The container they built was shaped like a torpedo, and was subsequently referred to as a time "capsule." The name stuck and has been used to describe these kinds of vessels ever since.
Today, the crypt remains sealed under the watchful eye (along with dozens of other time capsules) of the International Time Capsule Society, which is headquartered at Oglethorpe University. The society aims to document all time capsules, as many end up lost or vandalized before they are scheduled to open. (In Corona, Calif., 17 time capsules have been misplaced and countless hours have been spent trying to find them.) ITCS’s co-founder, Paul Hudson, first stumbled across the Crypt of Civilization as a student in 1970, and is now a leading authority on time capsules. To find out more about the society and to view a list of the most sought after time capsules, visit their homepage here.
If all goes as planned, none of us will be around for the opening of the Crypt of Civilization. It remains to be seen how accurately we will ever be able to portray our own civilization. It seems impossible to leave a complete and unbiased record of our own lifetime, and the question of what to include in a civilization-encompassing time capsule is very much debatable. In an article about time capsules in the November 1999 American Heritage, Lester Reingold wrote, "If nostalgia is a process of recalling the past selectively, emphasizing some memories to the exclusion of others, then time capsules are a kind of nostalgia in reverse." Therefore, time capsules seem less like an authentic way to represent our actual selves to the future than Jacobs had possibly thought. But which is better—to leave our legacy in the hands of "happy circumstances" or to bury it underground for safekeeping?