By Martha Polk
The year is 1936. In March, the Hoover Dam is complete. In April, soul singer Ruby Johnson is born. The same month, tornadoes take out Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, and director Frank Capra releases “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” In July, the Spanish Civil War begins. In August, Berlin hosts the Olympics, and Jesse Owens wins four gold medals as the crowd heils Hitler. In September, the last known Tasmanian tiger, Benjamin, dies.
In November, the president of Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University, Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, publicizes his plans to create the first modern “time capsule,” though that term had yet to be invented. He writes in the pages of Scientific American: “We propose to collect a complete set of materials which describe and represent our lives and labors … to make available to some civilization now unthought of, and still far in the future, the running story of the life, manners, and customs of the present.”
And so begins a four-year gathering period, after which they will seal the door to a vault full of life’s objects and artifacts. The door is not to be opened until May 28th in the year 8113. Jacobs and his contemporaries chose the year because it is as far in the future from 1936 (6,177 years) as 1936 was from the first year of recorded history. Such a lofty mission demands a grandiose title; the project is thusly dubbed, “The Crypt of Civilization.”
The Crypt can still be found today in the basement of a building on Oglethorpe University’s campus. That most Atlantans don’t know about the time capsule perhaps testifies there isn’t much to see: just a stainless steel door, unremarkable except that it’s welded shut. Yet there’s something strangely compelling about this aging black box of a six-millennia history project.
Maybe it’s this: In our current moment, if you find yourself critically concerned about the welfare of our planet, our nation, your neighbor, your family, your own body — you might feel an urgent call to at once take stock of history and think deeply about what comes next. This is also the job of a time capsule; as both a keeper of the past and a bet on the future, it asks us to look at where we’ve been and imagine what’s coming, tasks thrilling and horrifying in equal measure.
The Crypt sits upon a two-foot foundation of Appalachian granite bedrock, below seven feet of stone. A converted swimming pool, its glass-lined, stainless steel receptacle is filled with nitrogen to prevent oxidation and the aging of its materials—materials like copies of the Bible, the Quran, Dante’s “Inferno,” Homer’s “Iliad,” and an original screenplay of “Gone With the Wind.” There are recordings of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Chamberlain, FDR, Popeye the Sailor, and a champion hog caller. There is something called a June-bug spinner and there is a collection of various birds’ songs. There is a sewing machine and a toaster. Two mannequins — one female, one male — figurines of Donald Duck and The Lone Ranger, and a complete set of Lincoln Logs. A grapefruit corer, a doughnut cutter, and a cake of soap. Plant seeds, dental floss, an ashtray. One pacifier. One asbestos mat. One specially sealed can of Budweiser.
The list goes on, but — a mere 78 years into its 6,177-year journey — the Crypt’s claim to capture “all of human knowledge” appears woefully limited. For example, the inclusion of one “Negro doll” to the exclusion of — as far as the inventory list shows — any words, voices, or images of African-Americans, speaks volumes about white supremacy. The Crypt’s oversights are glaring, and to any contemporary onlooker sensitive to the vastness of history — or just with a taste for music beyond Artie Shaw — the project may seem foolish in more ways than one.
Which brings us to a broader point:
A time capsule always reflects its contemporary onlooker. It’s the observer effect — that old physics problem about an object changing just by being observed. Accordingly, the meaning and promise of a time capsule evolve as the world evolves around it.
An example? Look no further than Thornwell Jacobs himself, whose understanding of the Crypt and its mission would shift with World War II.
At the outset of the project in 1936, Jacobs’ announcement of the time capsule is chock-full of pomp, circumstance, and what can only be described as giddiness at the prospect of communicating with the future.
But by 1940, WWII has changed Jacobs’ tone. At the Crypt’s sealing ceremony, he addresses the audience of the distant future, saying: “The world is currently engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt, we leave it to you.” Five grueling years later, the atomic bomb’s unparalleled destruction introduced yet more questions for the Crypt of Civilization:
Could it survive all these future epochs of untold decimation? Could we?
Hallmarks of our current time: rising sea levels and temperatures, rampant hurricanes and unmanageable wildfires; leaders flirting nonchalantly with nuclear war; dozens of species dying off daily at a rate of extinction unparalleled since the dinosaurs; artificial-intelligence experts asserting our machines will surpass human intelligence within the next 50, 25, even 10 years. In a time when all this and more is true, it is perhaps unreasonable to think the Crypt of Civilization will still exist 6,000+ years from now. Or, even if it does, that there will be an audience to receive it.
On an even more practical level, even if there is an 8113 civilization, and they do find and open the Crypt, isn’t it perhaps foolish to imagine those future entities will read, watch, and listen to our 1936 media? Jacobs and his conspirators tried to account for inevitabilities like electricity and the English language dropping out of use, but their solutions seem to fall short: How does a “language integrator” teach English to any conceivable future audience? Will they figure out what a microreader or a phonograph do?
Amidst Jacobs’ optimism or naivete about such logistics, however, he also understood dynasties don’t last forever, that he, everyone he knew, and everything in his world would change to unrecognizable proportions if it all didn’t crumble first.
And here lies the foundational duality and tacit premise inherent to the Crypt and all time capsules: a simultaneous faith that the future exists and an understanding we won’t be around to see it; a blind optimism about the unfolding of time and a reckoning with our own demise. The world is changing rapidly and will not be ours forever; it’s scary. We think our current moment matters deeply, even if it’s also wildly inconsequential to the ever expanding universe, and we think that sharing our time — in all its cruelty, tenderness, and banality — with the future, that this ever so slightly allays our cosmic loneliness.
The dream is this: Maybe, even briefly, they will think of us.
In this light, the Crypt of Civilization seems less foolishly optimistic and more like the earnest best effort of one sliver of one civilization, to throw into the unknown darkness of the future a box — so small in the vastness of time — that says, this was a toaster and these were our songs. This was a can of beer and we loved it.
The world is ending every day, and the Crypt of Civilization knows this in its very stones, knows 8113 may never come at all because maybe there will be nobody who will care to count that year, or perhaps the whole idea of counting, and of time, will have fallen by the wayside. The Crypt’s beautiful promise is it looks ahead to this future and any other that could ever be, and still insists on keeping its unintelligible little treasures locked away just as long as it can, guarded by a fair amount of granite, on the outskirts of a place once known as Atlanta.