Since ancient times kings have ordered that clay tablets recounting their exploits be buried at the foot of temples and other monuments, for posterity. But in the last three generations, with the concept of the "time capsule", this technique progressed dramatically, so much so that at the beginning of the XXIst century it acquired facets of Science Fiction. Only time will tell if all of this has some scientific value or if it is just folklore.
In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs believed that upon death they would undertake a long journey to a land of the dead, where they would live forever. It was a literal belief, so they were buried with household items, furniture, jewelry, weapons and even food. The most famous tombs are the great pyramids of Giza, which have endured for 4500 years, but yet they could not scare away thieves of their own times.
For this and other reasons, the subjects of the pharaoh Tutankhamun decided not to install the abode of the body in a visible place, as the pyramids are, but in a secret underground vault. Thousands of years later, in 1922, the tireless Egyptologist Howard Carter found it almost intact, and with it a huge amount of the Pharaoh's domestic and official utensils, including tons of gold objects.
Apart from the fabulous treasure, that made popular imagination soar, Carter's greatest contribution to Science, and involuntarily Tutankhamun's himself, was that the objects, incredibly preserved under the dry sands of the Sahara, provided a snapshot of the everyday-life of the ancient Egyptians, something that transported the people from the twentieth century thousands of years into the past, or seen the another way around, made Tutankhamun and his culture travel thousands of years into the future.
Throughout all that time, the custom of burying objects alluding to a certain era in foundation-laying ceremonies of important buildings also continued. For example, the building of the Congress of the United States of America contains among its bricks a special chest with objects and documents. And in Asuncion, several years ago, masons who reformed a central square found a box of the time of the Independence of Paraguay; inside it there were various memorabilia.
But the idea of leaving objects for posterity evolved significantly in 1936. Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, a professor at the University Oglethorpe, Atlanta, United States, in his search for understanding the way of life of ancient civilizations, realized, very frustrated, that findings as spectacular as the tomb of Tutamkhamun were very rare. In fact, were it not for the peculiar Egyptian religion, these objects would never had have been preserved in the first place. He decided to do an act of charity to the archaeologists of the future: building a twentieth-century version of a pharaonic tomb. With it they might know more about our world and lifestyle.
He then prepared a granite and concrete room, able to withstand earthquakes, under an university building and filled it with books on microfilm, movies, clothes, radios, cash registers, toys, tea cups, cutlery, bottles, boxes, phones, seeds, medical instruments, newspapers, car parts, etc., anything that might give the people of the future an idea of how people lived in the first half of the twentieth century and who were them. It was called the "Crypt of Civilization", and on 28 May 1940, the heavy stainless steel door was finally welded in place. This Crypt was designed in what might have been the year 6177 in the Egyptian calendar, and the instructions say not to be opened before another 6177 years have passed, i.e., in the year 8113 C.E.
Around that time G. Edward Pendray, a scientist at Westinghouse, as preparations were being made for the 1939 New York World's Fair, heard of the Crypt of Civilization. He thought that something like this would be a good attraction for the company's pavilion at the expo. He devised a small capsule, using a newly developed special material capable of withstanding corrosion for 5000 years. With the help of leading specialists, he made a very rigorous selection of a multitude of small objects. The "Westinghouse Time Capsule" consists of a sealed glass tube filled with pure nitrogen (instead of air) surrounded by a 2,3 m long by 21 cm in diameter casing of an alloy of copper, chromium and silver. Its was buried on 23 September 1938, at a depth of 15 m. Lest we forget its existence, a special book detailing its history, intention, content and exact location was published. Titled "Book of Record", it was distributed to libraries throughout the world in the hope that it would be copied and translated on, until at least one copy could reach the year 6939, and finally somebody could read it and dig out the gift sent to them from us.
The concept popularized rapidly and the expression "time capsule" became commonplace. Imitators sprang up everywhere, to the point that there are companies that sell special containers, to keep personal or family objects, to people who are interested in contacting their descendants, whether in 50 years, 100 years or 500 years into the future. Many capsules are intended to be opened in the near future, for example Boy Scouts and preschool children use them to "talk" to themselves once they become adults. Others are installed with the hope that they will last as long as possible.
The time-capsule project with the longest intended duration is the KEO, which aims to send messages to people of no less than 50 000 years in the future. It is unique in other ways: the French artist who conceived it wants the messages not to be from just a group but from all the inhabitants of the Earth: more than 7000 million. For that he has set up a mailing address and a website on the Internet where people can send letters. He got the support of UNESCO and other international organizations, expecting to reach even small children and other people who can not write.
Another novel aspect is that it will not be buried, but placed at 1400 km altitude, in orbit around the Earth. At that altitude the few air molecules will brake it just enough, in the course of millions of revolutions, so that the orbit will decay and it will reach the surface again at the calculated time. The capsule would be a sphere of 80 cm, with successive protective layers: aluminum to prevent corrosion; titanium and tungsten against micrometeorites, space junk, and cosmic rays; ceramic against reentry heat and metal sponge to cushion the impact against the ground.
The payload will be a metal globe, able to float in water, with the "treasures" inside: pictures of people of all ethnic groups in the world; radiation-resistant glass DVDs with an encyclopedia about the world of today; a diamond filled with samples of air, soil, water and blood, plus a diagram of DNA carved on its surface; a sidereal calendar; and messages written by the public.
The project is perhaps too ambitious and perhaps a bit improvised. It still fails to clearly explain by whom or how the encyclopedia will be written. The collection of letters is very far from reaching the stated goal and the plan to publish them after the launch of the capsule breaks the confidentiality of correspondence, even after deleting the names. And the way of financing the project (without using money, only time donations and in-kind) has not been able to overcome the cost of several million dollars for building and launching such a device. No surprise then that the launch had been announced initially for 2001, then was rescheduled for 2003, thereafter organizers spoke of a launch in 2007 or in 2008, then they said that the launch date for KEO will likely be 2012, and later they were talking of late 2013 or during the year 2014, and now they have as target date the year 2017.
Anyway, the interesting thing about this project is that 50 000 years is already geologic time. Known History is about 5000 years old and civilized human beings have been around for only the last 10 000 years or so. 50 000 years ago there were no natives in the Americas and our ancestors lived in caves; Homo sapiens as a species is about 100 000 years old. When the capsule falls to the earth in 52 000 C.E., there is the possibility that genetic mutations would have transformed us into a different animal than we are today. In fact, surely, the races and ethnicities of the photographs shipped in the capsule will no longer exist. So, thinking about something to tell to those descendants that distant from us could be as mind-boggling as imagining our ancestor cavemen trying to talk with us.
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Based on a talk given at USP, on 26 May 2001. Originally published in ABC Color, on 7 May 2006. Photograph: Workers inspect the casing, manufactured from the special alloy Cupaloy, for the outer hull of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, in this company's East Pittsburgh, PA, factory, in or around July 1938. It must protect a collection of documents and other objects of the twentieth century, carefully selected, for no less than 5000 years: a message to the future is about to begin its epic journey. Credit: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, New York. Reproduced with permission of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Pittsburgh, PA, incorporated in the State of Delaware and a subsidiary of CBS Corporation, as licensor of the trademark. Special thanks to Dorothy Alke and Marie Podvorec for this courtesy.