Time Capsule 1939

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Visitors meet the 1939 time capsule with haughty laughter.

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The 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. 

The 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.

Westinghouse pavilion and the time capsule's shaft.

The Book of the Record of the Time Capsule.  Personally, I'm waiting for the film.One 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. 


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