Time Capsules: Remains of the Day

Culture Watch

Mr. Berger is co-founder of the International Time Capsule Society in Atlanta, Georgia and the former editor of the Seattle Weekly.

In the wake of terrorism and on the eve of war, it may be difficult to take the long view, but the disaster at the World Trade Center in New York may offer us an opportunity to renew our commitment to the preservation of civilization, or at the very least, its memory.

In most major architectural structures there exist what are, in effect, time capsules, usually items preserved for the future that have been placed into the building's cornerstone. The intentional depositing of material in cornerstones is an ancient custom. The Babylonians and Sumerians inscribed messages to the future on clay cones and tablets in their building foundations. Evidence of grains, libations, and sacrifices have been found indicating that these sites were in some way sanctified. The Mesopotamians also understood the importance of preserving knowledge for the long term. The Assyrian king, Assurbanipal, claimed to have learned a great deal by reading inscribed tablets that were buried to preserve them from the waters of the Great Flood.

Reference to the sacredness of the construction process crops up again in Biblical descriptions of Solomon's Temple, or even in New Testament references to Jesus Christ as the" cornerstone." In Medieval times, there are records indicating that masons and church officials conducted cornerstone and altar laying ceremonies. By the late Renaissance, as the masons transformed from being a guild of stone workers to a brotherhood of esoteric thinkers, the Freemasons, they became closely associated with the emergent Rosicrucians who counted among their legends the story of their founder, Christian Rosenkreutz, who was found buried in a time-dated crypt with an artificial sun and the secrets of the ages. These secrets the Rosicrucians were said to have recovered and they planned to reveal them in due time to usher in a new Golden Age built on the foundations of an ancient one. The"great instauration" Sir Francis Bacon called it.

By the middle of the 18th century, as Freemasonry spread throughout the world, so did their custom of publicly and ceremoniously planting, consecrating and filling cornerstones. George Washington himself, in full Masonic regalia, performed the rite at the laying of the first cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. Since that time, virtually every major public building in Washington, DC up to the early 1960s has had its cornerstone laying ceremony conducted by the Masons. (John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president, put an end to that.) Versions of these ceremonies continue to this day, conducted by Masons and others. They serve as a statement of identity, a message to the future, the literal placing of a small piece of ourselves-coins, newspapers, and documents--into the building and in essence moving with it through time to an uncertain future.

Perhaps it is time that we stop taking the survival of civilization for granted.

What is common throughout the history of Western Civilization is that humans designate certain spots as sacred, particularly those from which a building is about to"sprout." These spots are marked usually with some kind of rite or ceremony, and they often contain offerings intended for the coming generations.

In the 20th century, the cornerstone concept was secularized and expanded. In 1936, Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote an article for Scientific American arguing for the creation of a repository of human knowledge that would preserve our civilization for the ages. He began the project himself in the basement of a Gothic building at the university. He dubbed it"The Crypt of Civilization." The Crypt, sealed in 1940, still exists and is"scheduled" to be opened in 8113 AD. It contains a vast array of technology, artifacts, and microfilm for the benefit of those who find it millennia hence. In essence, it is a perfect tomb containing a record of human knowledge and achievement up to its time-including those modern miracles: a Royal manual typewriter and a Burroughs adding machine.

The Crypt inspired a science fiction writer, editor, and promoter of space exploration named G. Edward Pendray, who proposed a similar, though smaller version of the Crypt, as a publicity stunt for the Westinghouse Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. After much thought, he decided to call it a"time capsule," which proved to be a wise choice. An alternate name was"time bomb," which descibed its torpedo shape but seemed inappropriate on the eve of World War II-and even more so after the fair itself was the target of a terrorist bomb attack. The extensive newspaper and newsreel publicity surrounding the first time capsule made it an instant household word and its burial site in its"Immortal Well" in Flushing Meadows was a major fair attraction. The fair's theme was the"World of Tomorrow," and the first time capsule was our gift to people Pendray like to call"futurians."

Both the Westinghouse time capsule and the Crypt of Civilization were projects that sought to demonstrate that science and technology could overcome both the ravages of time and the destructive nature of man. For Thornwell Jacobs, destruction was the consequence of the inevitable rise and fall of civilizations. For others, it was embodied by the impending war: as Europe fell to the Nazis and countries with pavilions at the New York fair were literally being wiped from the map, there was a pervasive sense that civilization itself was in immediate jeopardy. A time capsule seemed a kind of lifeboat for the human spirit.

Time capsules have continued to be popular since, especially on the small scale. Literally thousands are buried each year, usually commemorating new malls or civic anniversaries. But few have had the ambition of the first. Westinghouse updated its 1939 capsule by burying another next to it during the 1965 New York World's Fair-one that included information about such developments as transistors, computers, the bomb and the Beatles, not to mention the outcome of WWII. The Japanese created another ambitious capsule for Osaka's Expo 70. But time capsules embracing the vast array of human knowledge seem to have generally fallen out of favor during the Atomic age. Perhaps it seemed that ensuring the survival of such a record was impossible with the threat of nuclear annihilation around the corner. The chief archivist of the Crypt, T.K. Peters, advocated a new one that could survive a nuclear blast, but no one paid attention. Others seemed diverted by the promise of outer space and the appeal of sending de facto time capsules in the form of messages--recordings or pictographs--that would ride in spacecraft like Voyager into parts of the galaxy distant in time and space. During the recent Y2K celebrations, few major capsule projects took shape-people were more commonly advised to fill a bunker with canned food for their own survival, forget civilization's. One of the more ambitious Y2K capsules was put together by the New York Times. It attempted to offer a snapshot of contemporary life for people in the year 3000, but its greatest contribution may have been to call itself a" cliche" before anyone else could, thus incorporating a kind of self-conscious irony that may have made it the first truly post-modern time capsule.

Nevertheless, our uncertain future today seems to cry out for an attempted rescue of the past and present. I have heard people remark that one thing that has helped them cope with the current crisis is the knowledge that terrorist bombs cannot wipe Mozart or Beethoven from the planet. But can't they? Our history is filled with huge gaps and question marks where there was once great art and scholarship. Can we expect more of a people that relies increasingly on expensive, unstable, and unproven technologies to carry its culture forward?

The World Trade Center catastrophe reminds us of several things. One is that the most permanent seeming structures-even towering symbols of our wealth and power-are not permanent. Second, that our culture is ephemeral in the extreme, a fact symbolized both by the blizzard of millions of bits of paper that blanketed lower Manhattan after the blast, and by the electronic disruptions that nearly brought the world's economy-not to mention the world's greatest city-- to its knees in an instant. Third, that there is an active threat to America, our freedoms, and our way of life. While that threat may no longer be an imminent nuclear holocaust, it is hardly reassuring that the future may resemble some kind of global Beruit or Somalia.

Perhaps it is time that we stop taking the survival of civilization for granted.

Clearly, recovering victims and evidence from the World Trade Center site is of primary importance at this time. But in the months ahead, attention will inevitably turn to rebuilding. Already there is some speculation on this score. The New York Port Authority has said it will rebuild and developer Donald Trump has suggested that the new building be a"soul-soaring statement of our faith in the future." A foundation for that faith perhaps is lying deep in the rubble of the World Trade Center in the form of the building's cornerstone. It would be of tremendous symbolic value to recover it, repair it if need be, and incorporate it into whatever new structure takes the place of the old. Certainly, it has already be sanctified by the life, death, destruction and rebirth that surrounds it.

In addition to recovery, the rebuilders should consider placing in the foundation a new, state-of-the-art time capsule devoted to preserving a complete, broad-minded, and multi-cultural record of our civilization for, to use Thornwell Jacobs' expression,"the utmost generation." This would be a powerful statement of our belief not only in ourselves, but in civilization's power to endure. It would be an act of defiance in the face of terrorism. And it would be an affirmation of life and accomplishment, of beauty and ingenuity, carried on by the means modern civilization's founders used more than 5,000 years ago.

Time capsule links:

Background on time capsules from the International Time Capsule Society


New York Times time capsule project


Making a time capsule: tips from the Canadian Conservation Institute


Also by Knute Berger on time capsules,"The Future of the Future" in Seattle Weekly


For more time capsule links and information about the time capsule documentary,"Message in a bottle"


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Lana Ruegamer - 10/1/2001

It's difficult to believe that anyone who has seen the collossally ugly and egotistical buildings Donald Trump has constructed could quote him with a straight face when he urges that the twin towers be replaced by a structure that will be a "soul-soaring statement of our faith in the future." Trump's version of the future and of "soul-soaring" is not one I have a lot of faith in. Rich men who build large public buildings that enormous numbers of people are forced to live with have the power to enhance or degrade public life. Trump chooses ugliness, vulgarity, and self-promotion every time. He symbolizes some of the aspects of capitalism that are its weaknesses: although he inherited father's real-estate fortune -- which means that he is dependent upon an orderly society that protects property and supports wealth-acquisition by public investment in law enforcement, education, transportation infrastructure (civilization's underpinnings)-- his major characteristics seem to be self-indulgence, bad taste, and no visible sense of responsibility to anybody else. Democrat though I am, I yearn (uncomfortably, it's true) for some version of noblesse when confronted with capitalism's hero, Trump. And the thought of what makes his soul soar gives me pause.

Trump is certainly part of this American civilization to which we belong, but I see him as a seamy underside of it, not as the brave soldier carrying the colors around which most of us rally.