Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Time Capsule Opened

The New York Times reports on a 100-year-old time capsule that was opened at the Paris Opera House recently.
On Dec. 24, 1907, a group of bewhiskered men gathered in the bowels of the Paris Opera to begin a project that by definition they could never see to fruition. First, 24 carefully wrapped wax records were placed inside two lead and iron containers. These were then sealed and locked in a small storage room with instructions that they should remain undisturbed for 100 years.

This fascinating musical experiment was undertaken by the Gramophone Company, ancestor to the modern-day musical giant EMI. The recordings have been digitized and will be released shortly on CD.
Most intriguing is the repertory chosen for posterity, and here the surprise is the lack of surprises. Wouldn’t any opera season today also offer evergreens by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini as well as by Bizet, Gounod, Wagner and Mozart? And won’t many concert programs this year include instrumental pieces by Beethoven and Chopin?

The great source of internet Truth, Wikipedia, has a wonderful article about time capsules. It seems the concept is quite ancient. In fact, says Wiki, "The Epic of Gilgamesh, among humanity's earliest literary works, begins with instructions on how to find a box of copper inside a foundation stone in the great walls of Uruk - in the box is Gilgamesh's tale, written on a lapis tablet. There were other time capsules 5,000 years ago as vaults of artifacts hidden inside the walls of Mesopotamian cities."

The best time capsule story I know of happened recently, at least it began recently. In the 1939 New York World's Fair, the Westinghouse Corporation buried a time capsule that is to be opened in 5,000 years. At the time of the 1965 World's Fair, they added another one.
This first modern time capsule was followed in 1965 by a second capsule at the same site, but 10 feet to the north of the original. Both capsules are buried 50 feet below Flushing Meadows Park, site of the Fair. Both the 1939 and 1965 Westinghouse Time Capsules are meant to be opened in 6939.

What do you think about this practice? Isn't it a fascinating concept? The stuff from 100 years ago is so antiquated, what would a 5,000 year time capsule seem like?

Is it too optimistic of the Westinghouse people?

Please leave a comment.


  1. i'm fascinated by "deep time" thinking such as championed by The Long Now Foundation. i think thinking more long-term is necessary for us as a civilization and a species.

    if i ever get the money to have a house of my own built (looking unlikely) i've made my mind up to massively overengineer the thing, build it to last a century of use, two centuries if i can work out how. right now i'm living in a structure that's showing serious wear and tear after only sixty-odd years, and that's just shoddy.

    one thing, though; building for centuries is doable, because human civilizations last that long and you can assume there'll be people around to care and maintain your thing on such time scales. building for millennia is a whole other ball of wax. we have very few things left that old, unless you count crumbling ruins, and building something so that it'll leave a nice ruin seems defeatist.

    burying a hundred-year time capsule is doable, because your great-grandkids will be there to open it. burying a thousand-year time capsule... i'd recommend not publishing the fact that you buried it, because people will stop caring that you were their ancestor long before it comes time to open it. that means they'll smash it to bits the moment it becomes inconvenient to them, so bury it someplace nobody will care to build in in the meantime.

    also, this archaeologist seems to be talking about something like the same thing.

  2. Our local village celebrated their Centennial in 1987 by burying a time capsule in the park with the idea that it could be opened during the town's bicentennial. I remember everyone donating items addressed to their future generations to find. Being a fairly young and arrogant punk at the time, I didn't contribute. The thought of one day having children then never even occurred to me. Someone did take my picture and photos of others and toss them in the vault. I don't know if Polaroids will really last one hundred years but maybe in the cold and dark they will.

  3. FWM, Thanks for sharing that personal brush with the time capsule. I find the whole business fascinating. It's neat to think that in 100 years a photograph of you would look like one of those turn-of-the-century pictures looks to us.