Day 557: Ourselves As Ancient History

originally published July 10, 2013

Had I planned ahead as a child and buried a time capsule to be opened when the heavy cloak of middle age officially snuffed out the last remaining candle of my youthful jubilance, I suspect I know what I’d have dropped in there. A copy of John Williams’ Star Wars score would have made the cut, as would my knock-off Tony Dorsett jersey. I’d have tossed in some Lego, my cherry-red 1983 Corvette (Hot Wheels toy, of course), some green army men, maybe a Transformer, and hopefully a bottle of pre-high-fructose-corn-syrup Coke.

There wouldn’t be a lot of surprises in that thing. That’s the problem with a  lot of time capsules – they don’t separate their bury-dates and their open-dates with enough years to let the fog of forgetfulness slip in. They become kitschy, not historical.

For the real spirit of the time capsule, we’ve got to back where it all began. Back to the Crypt of Civilization.

The idea kicked off with a guy named Thornwell Jacobs. Thornwell, or ‘Thorny’ as his friends used to call him (probably), served as a Presbyterian minister before becoming president of Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, a suburb of Atlanta. The school had opened in 1835, but was shut down after the Civil War. Thorny is credited for having brought the institution back to life in 1915, seven years before making an expedition to uncover the lost burial place of General James Edward Oglethorpe, the school’s original founder.

Thorny had a soft spot for 18th century British officers, I guess.

It was from this post that Thornwell Jacobs came up with the idea of preserving a room-full of human history for future civilizations. This was not long after King Tut’s tomb had started making the rounds on its first world tour, and Thorny was taken by the reemergence of ancient history, and also by the disappointing lack of actual information that had been packed into those Egyptian hidey-holes.

At the time, it was believed that the ancient Egyptian calendar’s start date was July 19, 4241 BC. Thornwell calculated 6177 between that date and 1936, which was the year he came up with the time capsule idea. As such, it seemed logical that the capsule should remain unopened until 8113 AD, exactly 6177 years in the future. Nowadays time capsules are intended to be opened by a future generation, or the same people a quarter century after it was sealed. Thornwell believed his capsule was meant for a future civilization, perhaps an alien race.

He wanted a running history of human-made life, from the birth of time up to the mid 1930’s. The rest of the University brass was on board, and the story of Thorny’s plan made a significant media splash around the country. This capsule – which had been given the not-so-subtle name “The Crypt Of Civilization” – would not be the first time capsule, but it was certainly intended to be the most thorough.

The Olgethorpe University campus had the perfect location; the swimming pool in Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall was to be yanked out, with classrooms installed in its place. A 20x10x10 room positioned upon the Appalachian granite bedrock foundation of the Hall was the spot chosen for the Crypt. Thorny brought in the National Bureau of Standards from Washington DC to help with the construction, and to provide some advice on what to choose and how to store it. This was an entire room, not a little metal tube, and it was important that the items within were protected against age, oxygen, or any other factor that might cause them to be ruined. A lot of the artifacts were thusly crammed into glass-lined stainless steel containers filled with an inert gas to keep oxidization at bay.

Thomas Kimmwood Peters, who began working in the movie business in the late 19th century, was chosen to be the project’s archivist. He arranged for microfilm readers and film projectors to be stored in the Crypt, and for a windmill-powered generator to make sure those objects were able to be operated in 8113. Just in case, he also added a seven-power magnifier to make sure the microfilm could be read.

It took until 1940 to gather all the items for the Crypt. King Gustav V of Sweden donated a few items, as did Eastman Kodak. Producer David O. Selznick donated a copy of the script for Gone With The Wind. More than 800 pieces of literature found their way inside, including the Koran, the Bible, and Homer’s Iliad. There were sound clips from modern leaders, like FDR and Hitler. A snippet of Popeye’s voice was tossed in, as was a champion hog caller.

The Crypt also includes a can opener, a pair of garters, some dental floss, a radio, typewriter, adding machine, a set of Lincoln Logs, a Donald Duck toy, some Artie Shaw records, an electric toaster, a sealed bottle of Budweiser, some steel plates from the Atlanta Journal reporting on the beginnings of the second World War, and a dry martini with an olive. It’s a pretty full room.

By May 25, 1940, when the Crypt was welded shut, its secrets left for some advanced, possibly tentacle-laden species to unlock, other Universities had already thrown together some hasty and less elaborate time capsules. Westinghouse had plunked down their own calling card for 5000 years in the future at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. But Thornwell Jacobs’ Crypt of Civilization was the one that received official government endorsement and the fascination of the international media.

In 1990, fifty years after the fanfare had died down and the past had been left to ripen, students and faculty at Oglethorpe University started the International Time Capsule Society, which accurately dropped the nickname “The Father Of Time Capsules” onto Thorny’s legacy. The Society set about keeping track of various time capsule closings and openings around the globe. One of their missions is to locate a number of ‘lost’ capsules, using GPS coordinates and collective best-guesswork.

I’m not particularly confident that a future civilization will one day unearth Thornwell Jacobs’ Crypt of Civilization and truly understand what we were all about. But it’s nice to dream – to wonder what they’ll make of dental floss, whether or not they’ll appreciate Scarlett’s character development in Gone With The Wind, or if they’ll look unfavorably upon us when they crack open and taste that bottle of Budweiser.

Hopefully they don’t think we all talked like Popeye or Hitler.

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