New York's sacred meadow
The vital legacy of the Westinghouse time capsules
 
Janus - Roman god of beginnings & endings

by Knute Berger

"Love unto the uttermost generation is higher than love of one's neighbor." -Friedrich Nietzche

Flushing Meadow is not a dazzling world's fair legacy site. Indeed, some days it seems more like a place of retreat rather than the former home of two bustling expositions that gathered the world's greatest minds and talents and let them loose to create a vision of the future. But while many billions of dollars were spent transforming this former Queens ash dump into a park, it should be noted that the two New York World's Fairs held here did have an impact belied by today's setting. One is the indelible impression they made on the public mind. The World of Tomorrow-the world of freeways, planned communities, TV, intelligent machines, and modern conveniences brought to you by benevolent corporations-largely shaped our expectations of what the late 20th century and early 21st centuries would bring. Indeed, those promises have largely come to pass (though not without controversy and discontent). Second is a less obvious legacy-one hidden by intention. For Flushing Meadow is a sacred precinct of a kind, a place where the seeds of the past have been buried for the benefit of a far future none of us will know.

Buried 50 feet underground, and indicated by a modest inscribed granite capstone, are two of the world's most ambitious time capsules. Each was placed there by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which built exhibits around them for their pavilions at both the 1939-40 and 1964-5 fairs. The 1939 capsule-actually buried at the Westinghouse pavilion site in 1938, prior to the fair's opening-was the world's very first time capsule. The term was coined for the project (an alternative was "time bomb"), and newsreel and newspaper coverage made it a household word. Time Capsule II, as the 1965 update was called, was a copycat project designed to bring the historic record up to date, including major developments that had occurred during "the rush of events," as Westinghouse phrased it, following 1938. These included World War II, atomic power, the Beatles, and manned space flight, among other things. Together, these two capsules hold a compact record of human accomplishment as it stood at mid-century. If they are recovered and opened on schedule, they could make another series of headlines (or their equivalent) in 5,000 years, in the year 6939 AD to be precise.

The Westinghouse time capsules bred a phenomenon that is highly popular to this day. Thousands each year, and perhaps tens of thousands during the last 60 years, have been buried, hidden, or stowed away to commemorate occasions of all kinds, from major anniversaries such as the US Bicentennial to high school graduations to the opening of a new mall. Some space craft even now are carrying time capsule-like messages and recordings into deep space. Indeed, both the initiation of new ventures and the celebration of old ones seem to be occasions for depositing capsules crammed with our memories, predications, and memorabilia. The Westinghouse time capsules have inspired us to celebrate our knowledge, our heritage, and our hopes. They are a means for us to express our collective ego and act on our instinct for self-preservation. And, not least important, if the Westinghouse capsules and their offspring work as intended, they may one day have a profound impact on the future. Centuries hence, their finders may be as moved as we by tapping in to the hearts and minds of the ancients.

It's no wonder that Westinghouse chose the face of the legendary Roman figure Janus to adorn its brochure issued to commemorate the sinking of the shaft that would hold Time Capsule II. The text refers to Janus as the Roman god of beginnings, but he was also the symbol of gateways: his two faces looked to the past and future simultaneously, which is exactly what a time capsule does. For us today, it represents tomorrow; for its finders, it will be a window on the past.

That Janus face is appropriate too for its suggestion that time capsules are part of an older, even pagan, tradition. Humans have buried objects with the intention that they be found at a later date for thousands of years. An example are the foundation deposits of the ancient Mesopotamians, who often included messages to future finders on clay tablets buried in temples, city walls, and other important civic structures. Even in the legend of Gilgamesh we have an example of how this ancient hero saved civilization from disaster by finding information preserved on tablets hidden before the Great Flood.

"He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden, he brought back a tale of before the Deluge."

In the Buddhist tradition, certain teachings have been recorded and hidden with the idea that they will be found when the world is ready for the next level of revelation. In Bhutan, Buddhists have buried tormas, small ritual figurines which often contain predictions for the future. A giant version of a torma is the Sun Tower, the landmark of Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan, site of another significant world's fair time capsule project.

The symbolism connecting the future with building, inherited from the Babylonians, is reflected in Western Civilization through stories of the construction of Solomon's Temple in the Bible and the symbolic language of the New Testament which refers to Christ as the "cornerstone" of Christianity. This tradition was revived-or kept alive-by ancient and Medieval masons. During the Middle Ages, the laying of altars and the setting of cathedral and church cornerstones was often attended by elaborate ceremony. This no doubt resonated with older, pagan traditions of burying votive objects at sacred sites, such as Stonehenge.

In the 17th century, during what has been called the Rosicrucian Renaissance, there was a widespread interest in the recovery of ancient wisdom. This period saw the rediscovery and publication of the works of Plato and the Neo-Platonic Hermetic Corpus, both of which fueled a fascination with alchemy, esoteric ideas, and secret societies. In some respects, a kind of proto-time capsule is described in early Rosicrucian literature, where ancient knowledge is said to be kept hidden in the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz, the Rosicrucian order's founder, and that this knowledge was rediscovered at precisely the time specified on a brass plaque on the tomb's door.

Interest in the recovered secrets of the Rosicrucians coincided with the evolution of speculative Freemasonry, fraternal societies founded on philosophical principles rather than on one's skill with bricks and mortar. In the 18th century, the Masons developed of a number of increasingly elaborate symbolic rituals. One of the most popular, and widely performed in public, was the cornerstone laying ceremony, which involved the ritual blessing of building cornerstones and, often, the placement inside of a container, such as a small copper or lead box, holding documents, books, coins, and other items to be recovered presumably when the building was razed or remodeled. These ceremonies were widely practiced in America. For nearly 200 years, virtually every major public building in Washington, DC began with a Masonic cornerstone ritual. The first and most famous of these was performed by George Washington who, in full Masonic regalia, helped lay the first cornerstone of the US Capitol in 1793. In 1851, at the laying of the cornerstone for the Capitol's extension, Daniel Webster painted a vivid oratorical scene that captured a sense of the ancient and mystical tradition Washington's performance represented:

"He heads a short procession over these naked fields; he crosses yonder stream on a fallen tree; he ascends to the top of this eminence, whose original oaks of forest stood thick around him as if the spot had been devoted to Druidical worship, and here he performs the appointed duty of the day."

Cornerstone ceremonies became widespread in the 19th century, and are commonly practiced today with or without the Masons. Many of the time capsules you hear about, whether a new one buried or an old one recovered, are not really time capsules per se, but rather cornerstone boxes or capsules that serve a similar, though largely ceremonial, function.

What is the difference between cornerstone boxes and time capsules? According to William Jarvis, a librarian at Washington State University who has long studied time capsules and has written a book about them to be published in mid-2002, the distinction is that a time capsule's creator leaves instructions concerning when the container is to be recovered and opened. An Egyptian tomb, Al Capone's vault, a treasure chest, and a cornerstone box are not, strictly speaking, time capsules. They are burial sites, accidental repositories, money hordes, or ritual objects with no particular temporal destination in mind. But a container put away with the intention that the information and artifacts therein will be useful for people in the future, and which is buried with the idea that it will be opened at a specified time, that is a time capsule. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "time capsule" this way:

"...a container used to store for posterity a selection of objects thought to be representative of life at a particular time."

By that definition, one of the first time capsules originated in the United States and was associated with a world's fair. In 1876, a Civil War widow named Annie Deihm was responsible for the Centennial Safe, also called the Century Safe. Displayed in the grand Memorial Hall at the US Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the safe contained a number of items from the fair: photographs and autographs of prominent government officials, a silver Tiffany inkstand, temperance literature, signatures of fair attendees, even a pen presented by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After the fair, the safe was sealed and shipped to Washington, DC where it was to be prominently displayed in Statuary Hall. Instructions were left that the safe was to be opened by America's "chief magistrate" (i.e. the president) on July 4, 1976. The keepers of the Capitol, however, were reluctant guardians of the safe, regarding it as something of a white elephant. It was shuffled off to various corners and largely forgotten for most of the next century. Nevertheless, it was recovered and, on July 1, 1976, opened by President Gerald Ford as part of the US Bicentennial festivities. The Centennial Safe is not only one of the earliest examples of a modern time capsule, but one of the first that worked as intended.

In the mid-1930s, the time capsule concept as we know it did not really exist outside of cornerstone deposits and Centennial Safes. But in 1935, a far-thinking man, Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, the president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, conceived a project that would put his school on the map and play a key role in world history. It would be called the Crypt of Civilization, and in it would be a complete record of our civilization. A modern-day King Tut's tomb, it would contain machines, tools, models, samples of man-made materials and technology, microfilm and written records. There would be toys, dioramas, jewelry, clothes, musical instruments, books, motion pictures and sound recordings, chewing gum, beer, snuff, hashish-the endless flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. This would be no amateur effort: the latest technology would be employed to create and preserve a permanent record of our civilization. All of it would be contained in a huge vault under one of the gothic halls on the Oglethorpe campus. Jacobs set the time for the opening, and he even issued special tickets made of "imperishable metal" for Noon, May 28, 8113 AD. Crooner Bing Crosby said he would attend, schedule permitting. The Crypt was sealed in 1940 and still awaits its destiny.

In 1936, an article about the Crypt appeared in the Literary Digest, authored by a man named G. Edward Pendray, the Digest's science editor. Pendray was a remarkable promoter and popularizer of science: a science fiction author under the pen name of Gawain Edwards, journalist, science editor of the New York Herald Tribune, co-founder and president of the American Rocket Society, an early champion of space exploration. By 1937, he was also an employee of Westinghouse and charged with convincing the public that the company was more forward-thinking than its rival, General Electric. It was decided that the company would have a pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939, something in keeping with the World of Tomorrow theme. The laying of the pavilion's cornerstone was seen by Pendray as a great opportunity for some pre-fair publicity, but soon he realized that every pavilion would be breaking ground in Flushing Meadow. How to set Westinghouse apart? Remembering Thornwell Jacobs' Crypt, Pendray decided to do something similar, but with a twist. Westinghouse would create a miniature crypt-civilization stuffed into a sleek, state-of-the-art seven-and-a-half-foot-long metal tube, a kind of streamlined torpedo, that would be buried for posterity. The project would give Westinghouse a chance to show off a new copper alloy they had developed-Cupaloy-and the ingenuity of its engineers. The time capsule, as Pendray brilliantly dubbed it, would be forward-thinking all right. It's destination would be 5,000 years in the future.

The project proved to have enormous appeal, and the newspapers and newsreels ate it up. Partly, the project appealed to the public's growing interest in technology and futurism, after all, this was the Golden Age of popular science and science fiction. In addition, the trouble brewing in Europe and the threat of world war scared many people. Even scholars like Thornwell Jacobs were keenly aware from the study of history that all civilizations rise and fall, many of them disastrously. Creating a kind of Noah's Ark of knowledge wasn't necessarily such a far-fetched idea-in fact, it might prove to be a practical necessity. Many smaller time capsules inspired by the Westinghouse project and buried for 50 years or so on the eve of World War II have been found to contain messages indicating that many people did not take America's survival for granted.

The time capsule proved to be such a publicity success, that before a single fairgoer had set foot in the World's Fair, everyone had heard of the Westinghouse time capsule. Of course, the real challenge wasn't publicizing the time capsule in 1939, it was keeping alive the memory of the capsule so that it would be recovered in 6939 AD. To that end, Westinghouse went to great lengths to ensure that the time capsule could be located and comprehended by its finders. An ambitious Book of Record was written, detailing the project and containing information about its exact location. Maps and coordinates were included, as well as estimates as to how far it may migrate over time underground. A key to the English language, assumed to be long dead, was included. More than 3,000 copies in two versions-hard and soft-bound--on acid free paper were sent to libraries, universities, museums, and monasteries the world over in the hope that at least some would survive and point the way.

Though no current inventory has been taken as far as I am aware, the success of The Book of Record seems mixed, based strictly on anecdotal evidence. Some libraries have their copies, often kept in rare book rooms or vaults. Others copies seem to be missing. When I visited the Library of Congress to do research for an article on time capsules in 1989, none of the library's copies could be located. Not all copies were sent to museums: some people involved in the project were given copies. I talked to the daughter of a man who worked on the project for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. She told me they treasured her father's copy for years until it was accidentally sold in a family garage sale. Westinghouse executives also sent some copies to customers and clients: I have seen at least one copy for sale with an accompanying letter indicating that it was sent for promotional reasons. Both copies I own contain a folded sheet apparently written under the assumption that not all original owners were institutions. It reads:

"This is an authentic copy of The Book of Record of the Time Capsule. The edition is limited, and it is not expected that the book will ever be reprinted in its present permanent form. It is a message to the future, and should be carefully preserved. If you do not wish to keep it, please send it to a library, museum or other permanent repository."

The fact that copies are in the hands of private collectors is probably good news in the long run, offering yet one more route by which copies may survive and perhaps avoid institutional turmoil and neglect. At least one copy was sent to a lamasery in Tibet-before the Chinese sacked and burned many of that country's libraries. I doubt that the Dalai Lama brought it with him when he fled to India. Such instability is a reminder that no institution is a guaranteed haven for 50 years, let alone 5,000.

When Westinghouse buried Time Capsule II in 1965, they promised to update The Book of Record. Instead of doing a new book, they sent out notice of the new capsule on a printed tip-in sheet describing the project. This was sent to institutions holding copies of the original book, and librarians and curators were asked to put this sheet in their original copies. I have seen copies of this tip-in, including in a copy at the Queens Museum at Flushing Meadow. But most copies of The Book of Record I have seen do not have it. I doubt many libraries understood what it was, and it could certainly not be placed if the original copies were missing. Plus, there was no way of distributing the tip-ins to people who obtained private copies as gifts or on the collector's market. In short, the record for the 1965 capsule is likely very incomplete.

Which may matter not. Whoever digs and finds the 1939 capsule is likely to bump into its stainless steel twin in a shaft only 10 feet away. Which brings up another interesting issue about recovery of the time capsules. While The Book of Record dutifully attempts to create a trail of bread crumbs that will lead to the eventual discovery of the time capsule, a bigger problem may be what will happen if the capsule is found prematurely.

Since the time capsule was "invented" in the 1930s, many thousands have been buried but not all have reached their "destination." Lost time capsules have been misplaced, poorly marked, or located where recovery is not an option. A time capsule by the cast of the TV series M*A*S*H, location unknown, may well be buried under a new Marriott Hotel. A 1939 time capsule at MIT was placed under the university's new cyclotron-but it was not opened on schedule in 1989 because no one wanted to lift the 18-ton magnet on top of it.

But another problem is human fiddling. Time capsules have been stolen, tampered with, and opened ahead of schedule. The official US Bicentennial Wagon Train time capsule was supposed to be sealed on July 4, 1976 by President Gerald Ford, presumably fresh from his duty opening the Centennial Safe just a few days before. But, the time capsule was stolen before the ceremony at Valley Forge and has never been recovered. In fall 2000, a 1949 KLM airline time capsule in Utrecht, Holland was stolen just three days before it was scheduled to be opened. And a foundation deposit in the base of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin, Ireland was recently opened and found to have been looted of its coins and contents. The chief suspect: whoever poured the sealing rosin into the recess as a preservative nearly 200 years ago. In early 2002, workers renovating the Seattle Opera House, which had last been remodeled for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition, found a copper box containing two time capsules which were duly opened. One was from 1928; the other was a previously unknown capsule put together by the world's fair organizers, and not intended to be opened until 2012. It was wrongly, though rather harmlessly, opened a decade too early.

So The Book of Record could lead mischief-makers to an important repository. The time capsules' main protection is the labor to exhume them. If the site is disturbed either intentionally or accidentally before its time, an inscription on Time Capsule I pleads its case to the better angels of our nature:

"If anyone should come upon this capsule before the year 6939 let him not wantonly disturb it, for to do so would deprive the people of that era of the legacy here left them. Cherish it therefore in a safe place."

Nice words, but ones many people in history have not lived by. One only has to think of the curses and warnings on Egyptian tombs to see how such sentiments are regarded by scholars and treasure hunters alike.

Other hazards include the ravages of time, including the elements. Many time capsules have been ruined due to water damage, an inherent problem when anything is buried in the ground. The Flushing Meadow capsules may face this problem in spades. The former wetland could be a casualty, over time, of global warming. If the seas continued to rise at current rates, the whole area could be 30 feet underwater in 5,000 years. Of course, this could be offset by other climate changes, as well as a rising of the landmass. It is simply too early to tell what will happen over the next five millennia (let alone predict next weekend's weather). The builders of the Westinghouse capsules anticipated a water problem. Time Capsule I is made of Cupaloy, an alloy of copper, chromium and silver. It was chosen for its corrosion-resistant properties. While state-of-the-art in 1938, the art had apparently changed by 1965. Time Capsule II was made of Kromarc, a kind of stainless steel, also corrosion resistant. In 1965, Westinghouse chemists also studied the soil of the Flushing Meadow burial site and determined that it was lacking in chloride ions which cause corrosion. They expressed confidence that the time capsules would stand the test of time.

Another potential hazard is manmade, and an example is not far from Queens. A number of the buildings at the World Trade Center complex in lower Manhattan contained cornerstone time capsules. One forensic architect I talked to who had worked at the WTC estimated there may have been as many as half a dozen. I have not been able to obtain any information about the status of these capsules in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, but certainly many documents and valuables were destroyed in vaults and safety deposit boxes at the World Trade Center. It is likely the contents of at least some of these capsules, if not all, were lost.

Regardless of their status, the remains of the World Trade Center time capsules are comparatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, though recovering and reburying them would make a potent statement about the resilience of America, and indeed, humanity. They are, however, a part of a site that is indeed considered sacred to many because of the tragedy that took place there. They are part of our loss.

But Flushing Meadow offers the potential for us to continue to develop an alternative sacred site, one not sanctified in blood and misery, but rather one that retains in its soil the optimism of the 20th century. Here is a place where we have celebrated our achievements, where we have looked both forward and backward, like Janus, to see the best of what is, and the best of things to come. I was struck by a comment by John Andrews, writing in the March 2002 issue of Fair News. After a recent visit to Flushing Meadow, he wrote that he was relieved that a new project did not infringe on the site's integrity. "The basic layout of the site remains intact," he wrote. "This is important to those of us who consider the grounds somewhat akin to sacred grounds that should be retained in its original state insofar as is possible." While Mr. Andrews was undoubtedly speaking from a historical perspective, I believe his sense of sacredness is right on the mark. As long as the Westinghouse time capsules remain in its soil, carrying out their 5,000-year mission to the future, Flushing Meadow is a place that deserves our care and protection, and our passionate stewardship. It is alive not only with the ghosts of the past, but more importantly with vessels carrying our collective memory to the "uttermost generations."

As it says on the dedication page of The Book of Record:

"All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee." Job XIV: 14-15


Knute Berger is a currently a full time freelance writer; political columnist for Washington Law & Politics magazine; a regular guest on NPR's "Rewind" program; Contributing Editor of Seattle Weekly; and commentator for "Weekday" on KUOW-FM, Seattle.

Knute has attended five World's Fairs, including Seattle '62, Vancouver '86, Seville '92, Lisbon '98 and Hanover '00 - five world's fairs in four different decades in five different countries - and has written and editorialized about fairs from time to time.

He first got interested in time capsules back in the 1970s and wrote an article on them for The People's Almanac II in 1978 called "Time Capsules in America" which was for many years the only major article on the subject. In 1989 he was hired by the Washington State Centennial Commission to create a unique time capsule for the state's 100th birthday. This capsule received publicity around the world, including write-ups in People Magazine and The New York Times. He delivered a paper on this time capsule at a conference on "The Future of the Time Capsule" in Osaka, Japan in 2000. In 1989-90 he researched time capsules for Smithsonian Magazine for an article that was never published. In doing so, Knute visited Flushing Meadow for the first time. In 1990, he was a co-founder of the International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, home of the Crypt of Civilization. He's worked with the ITCS ever since.

Knute would love to hear from anyone who has a comment about the article or has a similar interest in time capsules. You can eMail him by clicking his name in the first paragraph above.


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Would you like to learn more? Follow the links to these websites:
Westinghouse Time Capsule Feature Story at nywf64.com
The International Time Capsule Society
Take One Capsule and Call Us in 5,000 Years - NY Times Learning Network
The 1964 World's Fair Honoring Human Achievement - nytimes.com

© Copyright 2002, Knute Berger -- reprints of this essay without permission of the author are not allowed.