Westinghouse Time Capsule was put together as one of the major
exhibits of the 1939 New York World's Fair, but it is interesting that
something that was conceived as part of a giant trade and amusement
fair should have been designed and constructed with such seriousness.
This was no slap a few photos and today's paper in a tin dispatch box
affair. The Westinghouse capsule was from start to finish a very
real attempt to put together a message to the future that had a good
chance of surviving five thousand years.
The five thousand year mark was chosen because that was thought to be
the length of time since the dawn of recorded history, so the capsule
was intended to carry a message from the 20th century
forward another five millennia. It's rather telling that 1939
should see itself as the middle point in history; the pivot between
past and future. These were not a people who just pulled a
couple of end points out of the air and bisected the middle.
They regarded themselves as witnesses and perhaps the midwives to a
future being born. This was much more than just a
collection of mementos that they were burying. This was
declaration of a fundamentally optimistic people to a glorious future
telling their descendants in very big letters THIS IS WHO WE WERE AND
WE'RE DAMN PROUD OF IT!
It's the sort of chutzpah that's usually reserved for kings and
conquerors now being expressed by an entire civilisation.
The capsule itself was made of Cupalloy; an alloy
of copper (99.4 per cent), chromium (0.5 per cent), silver (0.1 per
cent) that is highly resistant to corrosion. Made in seven cast
segments threaded together and sealed with asphalt, there was an inner
glass capsule with the contents cushioned with glass cloth and the
whole thing flushed with nitrogen gas to avoid any chance of oxidation. The
items chosen were carefully
screened so that they contained no liquids, would not interact with
one another, or decompose spontaneously into corrosive gases or acids.
Organic items, such as seeds, were sealed in glass vials and even the
labels were selected and attached with an eye to producing as little
potential harm as possible.
This being the 1930s, the capsule was naturally streamlined even
though its sole purpose was to sit in the ground for fifty centuries.
time capsule was interned on 23 September 1938, the autumnal equinox,
in a ceremony marked by speeches and the solemn tolling of a Chinese
gong. The shaft was "sealed," though this was a temporary
cap that incorporated a periscope to allow visitors to the fair to
view the capsule in situ, and after the end of the
fair, the cap was removed, the shaft filled with pitch and concrete,
and the steel retaining tube removed.
Today, the Westinghouse pavilion is long gone, but
the site of the capsule's internment is marked by a squat concrete
marker in the park at Flushing Meadows*. Whether it remains
there until 6939 is another question.
of the advantages of the Westinghouse capsule was that it was safely
buried and therefore protected against discovery. One of the
disadvantages of the Westinghouse capsule was that it was safely
buried and therefore probably won't be discovered. It's one of
those paradoxes. If you make a time capsule easy to find, odds
are it's going to be disturbed. If you make it hard to find,
then there's a very good chance that it's going to get lost, which has
already happened to any number of other time capsules of the last
century. And what with being stuck fifty feet down in marshy
soil, the Westinghouse capsule was a prime candidate for being "safe"
until the crack of doom.
To keep the
capsule from being lost for all time, Westinghouse commissioned the
publication of The Book of the Record of the Time Capsule.
Printed on special paper in non-fading ink and hand sewn, thousands of
copies of the book were distributed throughout the world to libraries,
universities, monasteries, and even Tibetan lamaseries in hopes of
keeping the memory of the capsule alive until 6939 AD. The book
describes the time capsule, its
contents, and its purpose. It explains exactly where it is,
how to find it, how to build a metal detector to aid in the search,
how to dig it up, how to open it, and how to decipher the English of
five thousand years previous. It even contains some rather
plonking greetings from Albert Einstein and the like in case all the
linguistics and engineering gets a bit tedious.
The book is also nothing if not high-minded.
To quote the introduction:
In our time many believe that the human
race has reached the ultimate in material and social
development; others that humanity shall march onward to
achievements splendid beyond the imagination of this day, to new
worlds of human wealth, power, life and happiness. We choose,
with the latter, to believe that men will solve the problems of
the world, that the human race will triumph over its limitations
and its adversities, that the future will be glorious.
Not just good, better, or wiser, but flat out
glorious. This is probably as concise a summing up of the
attitude of Future Past as you can find.
*In case you're interested, the
capsule is buried fifty feet down at exactly 40° 44' 34".089 North
Latitude, 73° 50' 43".842 West Longitude.