The craze for burying time capsules that emerged in the 1930s in the US and Europe saw a wide variety of books consigned to the earth in tins, crates, barrels and purpose-built, carefully engineered pods.
Lowering a time capsule into the ground
Time capsule books are buried with the aim of preservation and the anticipation of future recovery (Jarvis 2003), so the choice of books is particularly interesting. They are generally meant to communicate something about contemporary society to future societies.
Shrock and Edgerton with time capsule components
Many of the time capsule buriers of the mid-twentieth century buried books reduced onto microfilm, then regarded as a panacea for libraries and archives. In 1966 MIT professors Robert Shrock and Harold Edgerton buried a wildly over-engineered time capsule beneath the site set aside for Alexander Calder’s iconic sculpture La Grande Voile.
La Grande Voile by Alexander Calder, under which the MIT time capsule was buried
Along with the typical time capsule schlock (coins, toys, and a copy of Time magazine) the four foot long Pyrex tube contained “Microfilmed copies of a road atlas, a cookbook, a Sears, Roebuck catalogue, and an Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology.” (Shrock 1982: 197). The glass tube was filled with inert argon gas, sealed, and packed inside a copper tube before being sealed in asbestos and buried in a concrete vault.
Burying the Westinghouse Time Capsule 1
Shrock and Edgerton’s time capsule recalled the more high-profile burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule 1 in 1939 at Flushing Meadows Park, site of the New York World’s Fair (Jarvis 2003). This futuristic cigar-shaped copper alloy cylinder contained a bewildering variety of cultural and scientific artefacts, including microfilms containing around ten million words of text drawn from books, magazines, encyclopaedias and newspapers. Alongside the microfilms were two books: a leather-bound bible and a book detailing the contents and location of the time capsule itself, copies of which were deposited in hundreds of libraries and collections around the world.
The Crypt of Civilization
One of the largest time capsules in the world – more of a time crate, perhaps – is the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, sealed in May 1940 and intended to be opened in May 8113. The 200 square foot room is dug into the bedrock, tiled in porcelain and sealed with a stone roof and a welded steel door. The crypt holds a bewildering variety of objects aimed to provide a snapshot of twentieth century life, including electronic goods, medical tools, masonic jewels, kitchen utensils, personal beauty products and a selection of toys. As with the MIT and Westinghouse time capsules, the majority of books in the crypt are in the form of microfilm: approximately 800 volumes including the Oglethorpe Book of Georgia Verse and “authoritative books on every subject of importance known to mankind” (Oglethorpe University 2013).
The burial site of the Nickelodeon time capsule
Given the future-minded seriousness of some time capsules (the Westinghouse capsule included a letter to the future from Einstein), the Nickelodeon time capsule buried at Universal Studios in 1992 is refreshingly different. The contents of the capsule were nominated by children, and aimed to represent objects of significance to children. Perhaps surprisingly, alongside a Nintendo Gameboy, Rollerblades and a Home Alone video, a number of books were placed in the capsule including an atlas, a history book and a volume on endangered species (Crezo 2012). The capsule is scheduled for opening in 2042.
With a few exceptions the books buried inside time capsules are meant to convey the values and achievements of the cultures that buried them. The relative abundance of encyclopaedias amongst the buried books suggests an archival aspect as well: the collected knowledge of a civilization buried for safekeeping as a gift to people of the future.
Crezo, A. 2012. Every item inside the time capsule Nickelodeon buried in 1992.
Jarvis, W.E. 2003. Time Capsules: A Cultural History. London: McFarland & Company.
Oglethorpe University. 2013. Inventory of the Crypt of Civilization.
Shrock, R.R. 1982. Geology at MIT, 1865-1965: a history of the first hundred years of Geology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Volume II: departmental operations and products. Cambridge, MA: MIT.