The Story of the Westinghouse Time Capsule

What the Project Means -- How the Time Capsule Was Constructed -- What it Contains -- How It Will Be Protected Against Vandalism -- How Word of Its Location Has Been Left for the Future.

EVER SINCE archeologists and historians turned their talents to deciphering the unrecorded past, human beings have dreamed of simplifying the problem for scientists of the future, deliberately preparing a message from our time to theirs.

Until recently this perennial dream has been only a dream. The problem of preserving such a record is extremely difficult. Crypts on the earth's surface, no matter how strong, offer obvious temptation to vandals. Most materials suitable to be deposited in the earth are subject to rapid corrosion, or are too brittle or too difficult to find after burial. Too little was known about the effects of time to permit anyone confidently to design a vessel for the future.

A few months ago engineers of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company decided that the advance of technology had removed these difficulties at last, and what hitherto had seemed impossible could now be done.

Early in 1938 they decided upon building a "Time Capsule" capable of lasting 5,000 years -- a period of time almost as long as that of all recorded history. Five thousand years ago the pyramids were still unbuilt. The peoples of that time had discovered metals, and were using metallic alloys. They had learned how to write down human speech and record language on clay tablets and stone. They understood commerce; they knew how to build huge cities. But they had not yet devised the alphabet, and they did not know of the existance of iron.

Casting the Capsule's shell in molten Cupaloy

Five thousand years from now the peoples of the future will look back upon us as we look back on the early Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians. It was the plan of Westinghouse engineers to provide them with more knowledge of us than we have of any of the ancient peoples who lived before us.

Three Major Problems

This project clearly required the solution of three great problems.

The first was, how to build a vessel capable of lasting 5,000 years, and how to preserve it for posterity.

The second, how to leave word of its where-abouts for historians of the future.

The third, the selection and preservation of its contents.

Each of these problems was carefully considered. At each step, counsel was taken with archaeologists, historians, technical and scientific men, hundreds of whom participated with Westinghouse in the working out of this project. A Time Capsule Committee was formed, which established sub-committees to study the various questions relating to the plan.

A sub-committee headed by M.W. Smith, Westinghouse Manager of Engineering, undertook the solution of the first problem: that of designing and constructing the Time Capsule. It was decided that the best material would be a metallic alloy of high corrosion resistance and considerable hardness, non-ferrous (containing no iron), and preferably consisting principally of copper, oldest of the metals used by man.

Careful hands fashion the Capsule

Fashioning the Capsule

The Capsule begins to take final form

Capsule takes final form

A new alloy of copper, known as Cupaloy (copper 99.4 per cent, chromium 0.5 per cent, silver 0.1 per cent) was found most nearly to fulfill the specifications. Like that reputed to have been used by the ancient Egyptians, the secret of which has been lost, this metal can be tempered to the hardness of steel, yet has a resistance to corrosion equal to pure copper. Also -- of great importance -- in electrolytic reactions with iron-bearing metals in the soil it becomes the anode and therefore will receive deposits instead of wasting away, as do buried water-pipes and other iron alloys. Moreover, Cupaloy is especially resistant to corrosion in salt water.

For reasons of strength and convenience, the Time Capsule was shaped like a torpedo, seven and a half feet long and eight and three-eighths inches in diameter. The outer shell consists of seven cast segments of Cupaloy, threaded, screwed together hard, and sealed with molten asphalt. The nearly invisible joints have been preened out and the outer surface burnished. The walls of the Cupaloy segments are one inch thick, thus leaving an inner crypt six and three-eights inches in diameter and six feet, nine inches long. The crypt is lined with an envelope of Pyrex glass, set in a water-repellent petroleum base wax. Washed, evacuated and filled with humid nitrogen, an inert, preservative gas, this glass inner crypt contains the "cross-section" of our time.

For the Guidance of "Futurians"

The second great problem, that of how to leave word of the whereabouts of the Time Capsule, was met by preparing a BOOK OF RECORD OF THE TIME CAPSULE, printed on permanent paper with special inks. Copies have now been distributed to libraries, museums, monasteries, convents, lamasaries, temples and other safe repositories throughout the world.

Inspectors follow every detailed step
Inspecting the Capsule

The BOOK OF RECORD was prepared after detailed consultation with libraries, museum authorities, printers and bookbinders. Suggestions for binding and general treatment were obtained from the office of the National Archives, the New York Public Library, the American Library Association and other sources. The United States Bureau of Standards furnished specifications for the permanent paper and inks. A special run of 100-pound rag book paper was manufactured for the book. The pages of each copy were sewn together by hand with linen thread. A portion of the edition was bound in royal blue buckram stamped with genuine gold. The remainder was bound in handmade flexible paper, stamped with aluminum.

The Book of Record and the Holy Bible
Book of Record & Holy Bible

In order that the appearance of the BOOK OF RECORD might match its permanence, Frederic W. Goudy, one of the foremost type designers, typographers and printers of our time, consented to design the book and set a portion of the type. Exactly 3,650 copies were printed, of which 2,000 (including one buried in the Time Capsule) were bound in flexible paper, and 1,650 in buckram.

The BOOK OF RECORD contains a message to posterity asking that it be preserved and translated into new languages as they appear; a description of the Capsule's contents, and the exact latitude and longitude of the deposit as determined by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to the third decimal point in seconds. The geodetic coordinates are tied into the Survey's national network, on which astronomical as well as geodetic data are given. In addition, instructions are included for making and using instruments to locate the Time Capsule by the methods of electromagnetic prospecting.

That our tongue may be preserved, the book contains an ingenious "Key to the English Language" devised by Dr. John P. Harrington, of the Smithsonian Institution. By means of simple diagrams the peculiarities of English grammar are explained; a mouth map shows how each of the 33 sounds of English are pronounced. A 1,000-word vocabulary of "High Frequency English" spelled in the ordinary way and neo-phonetically, is provided. In itself the Key is believed to contain all the elements archaeologists of the future will need to translate and pronounce 1938 English, but to make doubly certain, the Time Capsule itself also contains multi-lingual texts, a dictionary and a lexicon of slang and colloquial English.

Also contained in the BOOK OF RECORD are messages to the future from three famous men of our time: Dr. Albert Einstein, Dr. Robert Millikan and Dr. Thomas Mann. A table of common measures in the English and Metric system is given, including a statement of the length of the standard meter in terms of the wavelength of red cadmium light -- a constant that will never vary, no matter what other systems of measurements are in use 5,000 years from now.

Selecting the Contents

Choosing what was to go into the limited space of the Time Capsule crypt proved perhaps the most difficult problem of all, because nothing short of an enormous gallery of vaults could accommodate all the objects and records of any civilization.

The Time Capsule Committee turned for advice to archaeologists, historians and authorities in virtually every field of science, medicine and the arts. On the basis of their helpful suggestions, the Committee chose to include some thirty-five articles of common use, ranging from a slide rule to a woman's hat, each selected for what it might reveal about us to the future archaeologists. Also included are about seventy-five samples of common materials, ranging from fabrics of various kinds, metals, alloys, plastics, and synthetics to a lump of anthracite and a dozen kinds of common seeds.

The woman's hat, specially designed by Lilly Dache, was the last object packed in the Capsule
Packing woman's hat

These material items, however, are only supplementary to a voluminous essay about us and our times, reduced to microfilm. On three an a half small reels there are reproduced books, articles, magazines, newspapers, reports, circulars, catalogs, pictures; discussing in logical order where we live and work, our arts and entertainment, how information is disseminated among us, our general information, our religions and philosophies, our education and educational systems, our sciences and techniques, our earth, its features and peoples; medicine, public health, dentistry and pharmacy, our major industries and other subjects. This "Micro-File" comprises more than 22,000 pages of text and 1,000 pictures; a total of more than 10,000,000 words. It would take an ordinary person more than a year to read all of it; more than a decade to assimilate all this knowledge. Probably no man living knows as much about us as those who study this Time Capsule will know.

A small microscope is included for reading the microfilm; also instructions for making a larger, more comfortable reading machine, such as those used in libraries and newspaper offices for this purpose. There are likewise instructions for making various kinds of modern instruments, including a motion picture projection machine. For use with this, three reels of newsreel are contained in the Time Capsule, showing about twenty characteristic, significant or historic scenes of our times, complete with sound, and ranging all the way from an address by President Roosevelt to a Miami fashion show. The newsreel was especially edited for the Capsule by RKO-Pathe Pictures, Inc.

Packing the Time Capsule

The utmost care was taken in packing the contents. Under the direction of representatives of the United States Bureau of Standards each object was examined to determine whether it could be expected to last 5,000 years. All articles containing volatile solvents were ruled out; also all materials which might decompose with the production of fumes or acids that might attack other articles in the crypt. No liquids of any kind were permitted in the crypt. Organic objects, such as seeds, were sealed in special gas-tight capsules.

Every object enclosed in the Capsule was then fully labeled and described. The glass capsules containing seeds and other objects contain labels sealed into the glass. All other objects were individually wrapped in heavy 100 per cent rag ledger paper and tied with linen twine, with the label wrapped inside. Where it was necessary to use paste to attach a label, only pure gum arabic was used. Film, including both the microfile and newsreel, was enclosed in special spun aluminum containers, lined with rag paper.

The position of each object in the crypt was determined by its weight. The heavier objects are packed in the bottom, resting on a cushion of glass wool. The seven containers of film rest about mid-way in the crypt. The lighter objects, including the woman's hat, are placed on top. The hat was stuffed with surgical cotton to preserve its shape, and wrapped in paper. All spaces between the objects in the crypt were cushioned and made firm with glass wool.

Witnesses at the Capsule's packing: F.D. McHugh, David S. Youngholm of Westinghouse, C.G. Weber; seated, Grover A. Whalen
Witnessing Capsule packing

The process of packing was conducted in the presence of three official witnesses: C.G. Weber, of the United States Bureau of Standards; F.D. McHugh, managing editor of the Scientific American, and Grover Whalen, president of the New York World's Fair 1939. A checklist of contents, bearing the signatures of the witnesses, was the last thing included in the crypt.

Immediately following the packing, the Pyrex inner crypt was placed upon a glass-lathe, heated and sealed. The air was then drawn out through a small tube, the contents washed with inert gas, and the crypt filled with nitrogen, to which just enough moisture was added to equal the humidity of an ordinary room. Protected from oxygen and excess moisture by this inert, humid atmosphere, the contents are expected to remain in their present condition indefinitely. When archaeologists of the future open the Time Capsule they will probably find the film, fabrics, metals and other materials as fresh and "new" as they day they were put in.

The final step in the preparation of the Capsule was the insertion of the glass inner crypt into the outer Cupaloy shell. Before this was done, the Pyrex envelope was wrapped with several layers of glass tape to increase its strength. Both the Cupaloy outer shell and the packed crypt were then gently warmed in electric ovens to encourage the flow and penetration of the waterproof wax. After the inner crypt was in place, the Capsule was raised upright, and the wax poured in around the glass. "Shrink-fitting" the final Cupaloy joint was then accomplished by chilling the heavy cap to several degrees below zero with dry ice, then turning it into place on tapered threads. When permitted to warm up to the same temperature as the rest of the Capsule, the natural expansion of the metal caused the threads to seize so tightly as to form an air-and-water-tight joint.

Sealing the packed inner crypt was a delicate task
Sealing the inner crypt

Depositing the Capsule for the Future

The Time Capsule is preserved for posterity at the site of the New York World's Fair 1939; chosen because New York will certainly be an attractive place for archaeologist 5,000 years from now, as are the sites of ancient Athens, Rome and Troy in our own time.

It was lowered fifty feet into the earth on the site of the Westinghouse Building at the grounds of the World's Fair at high noon on September 23, 1938, the precise moment of the Autumnal Equinox. While a Chinese gong tolled solemnly, A.W. Robertson, Chairman of the Board of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, committed the Time Capsule to posterity with these words: "May the Time Capsule sleep well. When it is awakened 5,000 years from now, may its contents be found a suitable gift to our far-off descendants."

The Capsule made its descent into the earth thorough a steel pipe ten inches in diameter, and came to rest upon a block of waterproof cement. Before this well is finally closed, the Capsule will be entombed in pitch and an additional layer of concrete, after which the steel pipe will be cut off and withdrawn. The land where it lies will become a city park after the Fair, and the site of the Time Capsule may be marked with a shaft or boulder. During the Fair a replica of the Capsule, and duplicates of all the objects, books and other items it contains, will be on view in the Westinghouse Building.

A.W. Robertson, Westinghouse Chairman, and Grover A. Whalen guide the Time Capsule to its long resting place
Capsule burial

Safe from Vandalism and Sinking

Many questions are asked about the time Capsule project, the principal one being, how will it be protected from thieves or persons whose curiosity is greater than their sense of obligation to the future?

The problem of keeping the Capsule safe from vandals is believed to be well taken care of by the site selected for burial. Sunk fifty feet below the surface of the ground, in swampy soil, recovery will involve an expensive and difficult engineering operation, costing many times the possible intrinsic worth of the Capsule for its metal and saleable contents.

Another question often discussed is whether, 5,000 years from now, the coast will have sunk so far as to drown the area. Consultation with geologists and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic survey indicate that there is probably no foundation for the common notion that the East Coast is sinking. Surveys extending over the last 40 years show that if there is any sinking at all, the rate is so slow that the change in level in 5,000 years would be only a few feet. The elevation at the site of the Time Capsule is about 20 feet above sea level.

As to the third question frequently asked: will it ever be found again? Westinghouse engineers can only reply that every precaution has been taken, through the BOOK OF RECORD, to guide archaeologists of the future to the exact spot. If the people of the distant future wish to find it, they can probably do so, even though it should migrate in the earth, or sink. And even if all else fails, we may depend on the perennial curiosity and the digging and burrowing habits of the human race, to unearth it sooner or later. In the words of Dr. Clark Wissler, Dean of the Scientific Staff of the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the foremost archaeologists in the United States:

"We have been told that such efforts as ours here are futile; that, alter all existing civilizations have died out and new civilizations come to be, no one will find this record, or if they do perchance discover it, they will not be able to make anything out of it. But the chances are good that these records will be found and that they can be interpreted."

Capsule diagram

SOURCE: The Story of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, © Copyright 1939
SOURCE: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company East Pittsburgh, PA


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