In the basement of Phoebe Hearst Hall at Oglethorpe University in Georgia, there is a stainless steel vault door which was welded shut over sixty-five years ago. Behind this door lies a 20′ x 10′ waterproofed room containing a menagerie of once-modern artifacts and microfilm records, placed there by men and women in the years between 1937 and 1940. If their goal is realized, the contents of this vault will remain unseen and undisturbed for the next 6,107 years. This ambitious project, which began in the dawn of the Second World War, is known as the Crypt of Civilization; it represents the first concerted effort to collect and preserve a snapshot of human civilization and technology. Though the term had not yet been coined at its inception, it was the first modern time capsule.
The whole concept crept from the brain of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs in 1936, at which time he was the president of Oglethorpe University. While teaching and researching ancient history he was struck by the scarcity of information on ancient civilizations, so he conceived an idea to prevent the problem from occurring to those who might study our civilization in the future. His “crypt” was to contain a comprehensive record of civilization up to that time, as well as the accumulated knowledge of mankind. He recruited the assistance of Thomas Kimmwood Peters, and put him to the monumental task of recording the corpus of humankind upon a new medium known as “microfilm.” Peters was singularly qualified for this task, given that he was the inventor of the first microfilm camera.
The fickle public seemed simultaneously inspired and troubled by the project. The scale of idea and its far-reaching scope were unlike anything attempted in modern history. The crypt was featured in publications and radio broadcasts worldwide, and Jacobs was thrilled by the attention the project had drawn. He described the crypt as his generation’s “archaeological duty.”
The target year for the crypt’s future opening— 8113 A.D.— was arrived at by considering 1936 to be the halfway point to the future. 6,177 years had passed since the Egyptian calendar had been established in 4241 B.C., so Dr. Jacobs projected forward the same number of years from the date of his idea’s birth. The fact that the inhabitants of 1936 thought of their time as a great pivot point in history speaks to the technological optimism of the generation, which is understandable considering that some of the greatest inventions in history began to make their early, high-profile appearances around that time.
Actual preparation of the crypt began at the University in 1937. The site chosen was a basement room which had previously held a swimming pool, which meant that its foundation was already designed to be impervious to moisture. The room was a ten-foot by twenty-foot subterranean cavity in the solid granite bedrock, about seven feet beneath the surface. The chamber was further prepared by raising its floor with concrete and covering the walls with porcelain enamel plates embedded in waterproof pitch.
For three years, Peters and a staff of student assistants captured and stored over 640,000 pages of documents onto microfilm, including religious texts such as the Bible and the Koran, and works of literature such as the Iliad and Dante’s Inferno. In addition to the microfilm, Peters compiled photographs, motion pictures, and voice recordings of political leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Roosevelt. In order to make these materials accessible to the people of the future, there are glass magnifiers, as well as electrical projectors and players which can be powered with the included windmill-driven generator. Numerous “artifacts” from daily life and technology were also amassed and arranged in the chamber, including sewing machines, an early television, a telephone, mechanical watches, artwork, plant seeds, and much more.
Jacobs and Peters consulted with the U.S. Bureau of Standards for the best means of preserving the microfilm and artifacts for such an enormous span of time, and ultimately they opted to encase the sensitive items in sealed stainless steel receptacles with glass linings. Before they were sealed, all of the air was removed from these containers and replaced with nitrogen to prevent oxidation of the contents. As an added precaution, duplicates of the microfilm were made on metal film.
By 1940, the crypt was complete, and filled with stacks of sealed containers and objects representative of the time. On May 25 of that year, the crypt door was ceremoniously sealed in the presence of the city Mayor, the state Governor, and the U.S. Postmaster General among many others. The event was broadcast on the radio, and recordings were made of some of the profound things being uttered at the ceremony, to be used as some of the crypt’s final additions. Also contributed in the closing moments was a steel plate from the Atlanta Journal, which headlined themes of the war in Europe. The stainless steel door was then closed and welded shut, giving the interior of the vault its last taste of light until 8113… if all goes according to plan.
Lacking the budget for poison darts and giant stone spheres, the builders of this crypt instead used a different deterrent against would-be early intruders: Guilt. A stainless steel plaque is mounted above the crypt’s sealed entrance, begging any who encounter the crypt to leave its contents undisturbed until the year 8113.
The plaque reads:
This Crypt contains memorials of the civilization which existed in the United States and the world at large during the first half of the twentieth century. In receptacles of stainless steel, in which the air has been replaced by inert gasses, are encyclopedias, histories, scientific works, special editions of newspapers, travelogues, travel talks, cinema reels, models, phonograph records, and similar materials from which an idea of the state and nature of the civilization which existed from 1900 to 1950 can be ascertained. No jewels or precious metals are included.We depend upon the laws of the county of DeKalb, the State of Georgia, and the government of the United States and their heirs, assigns, and successors, and upon the sense of sportsmanship of posterity for the continued preservation of this vault until the year 8113, at which time we direct that it shall be opened by authorities representing the above governmental agencies and the administration of Oglethorpe University. Until that time we beg of all persons that this door and the contents of the crypt within may remain inviolate.
Of course, if an archaeologist today found a buried tomb whose inscription enjoined the finder not to open the door until some distant future date, it is doubtful that the wishes of the tomb’s makers would be respected.
In the event that the Crypt of Civilization is opened by people who do not speak English as we know it, the room includes numerous pictographic representations of information, perhaps the most important of which describing the operation of the vault’s “language integrator”— the first piece of technology that one should encounter upon entering this technology tomb. Ironically, it seems that much of the information regarding this machine has been lost to the eroding effects of time, but it is said that this hand-powered English-teaching device was inspired by the Rosetta stone, yet based on the “Nickelodeon principle.” It’s vocabulary consists of only 1,500 words, a subset of our language called “Basic English” which was used in cryptographic codes in the first World War.
The usefulness of such time capsules has long been called into question by archaeologists and historians, because wild optimism was long ago supplanted by skepticism as the fashionable attitude. Time capsules’ crippling fault lies not only in their questionable ability to weather the vast acres of time, but also in the fact that those responsible for the contents are presenting only what they want its openers to see. While gadgetry and documents are not completely lacking in historical value, their pristine condition says little about their role in everyday use. Be that as it may, the value to future historians is potentially incalculable.
Given the Crypt of Civilization’s waterproofed underground location and surrounding granite terrain, it is probable that the vault will reach the year 8113 A.D. relatively intact. The area is not subject to much seismic activity, and though earthquakes there are not unknown, they are not anywhere near as frequent or as powerful as those in many other parts of the world.
To keep knowledge of the crypt alive, Dr. Thornwell Jacobs had plaques of cellulose acetate made which contain information about the Crypt of Civilization in many languages, and sent them to libraries, universities, monasteries, and temples around the world. Now Oglethorpe University— the home of the modern world’s first time capsule— is home to the International Time Capsule Society (ITCS), an organization established in 1990 to promote the careful study and documentation of time capsules.
The current state of the crypt’s contents is unknown, but the objects inside are presumed to be in good condition. However the sixty-five years which have passed since its door was welded shut is but a blink compared to the 6,107 years it has yet to traverse. Here’s hoping it makes it to its destination in the future unscathed.
Special thanks to Elizabeth Pittman from Oglethorpe for providing the photo and other useful details.