It’s 2015 and there’s some construction work underway over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A team of builders have been brought into the campus in order to put together a new research facility. In the midst of these activities, though, the laborers happen to stumble across something odd.
While excavating the site, the workers inadvertently unearth a startling surprise — some sort of strange cylinder. At a glance, it appears to be made out of glass — perhaps it’s a component of the utility network that runs throughout the campus? However, a closer look reveals that this cylinder contains a number of items.
With the container now out in the open, the university’s staff now have an opportunity to take a look at it for themselves. It doesn’t take too long for the penny to drop as to what it is they’re looking at. Essentially, it becomes clear that the cylinder is a time capsule.
The 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines a time capsule as “a container used to store for posterity a selection of objects thought to be representative of life at a particular time.” But why would anyone ever set out to make such a thing?
Well, if a time capsule is organized appropriately, it can be an effective means of communicating with the future. In other words, people from one period can stow away items they think may help people in the future to understand what life was like in the past. Moreover, anyone can put a time capsule together, from large organizations down to individuals.
There’s even a group that’s been specifically created to deal with all matters related to time capsules. Appropriately named the International Time Capsule Society, this organization was set up in 1990. In essence, it aims to study and record all of the types of time capsules which are littered across the globe.
A time capsule can contain pretty much anything within reason. For instance, one famous example relates to the TV show M*A*S*H. In 1983 people working on the series stashed away a time capsule holding objects and clothing associated with the series. The container is reportedly buried somewhere on the 20th Century Fox parking lot in Los Angeles.
Another famous time capsule is located in the United States Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Here, a container full of coins, historical documents and newspapers was buried underneath a cornerstone during extension works in 1851. This capsule is said to have remained there right up to this very day.
Another famous American time capsule actually went missing before it ever had the chance to be hidden away. You see, back in the mid-1970s there was a plan to have millions of Americans sign parchments which would then be buried away for future generations. Some 22 million people contributed to this project — including President Gerald Ford — but the pages of signatures were seemingly stolen.
Another mystery surrounding a time capsule relates to a container full of audio recordings. The foundation stone of the Gramophone Company’s factory in Hayes, England contained recordings of opera singer Nellie Melba. The container was later removed but disappeared before it could be buried again.
So, as we’ve seen, it’s far from certain that a time capsule will be recovered again in future. It might go missing, or it’s entirely possible that its burial place may simply be forgotten. In fact, the International Time Capsule Society actually keeps a list of known capsules that have never been recovered.
Time capsules can be found all over in the world but one location in particular is known to be home to quite a few. In fact, the MIT campus is said to be the site of several containers at various spots around the site. In fact, there are reportedly no less than eight — and there could well be more.
One example of an MIT time capsule can be traced back to 1999. That year, the institution’s Laboratory for Computer Sciences stowed away a container which held snippets of history related to the internet. These contents were secured by a cryptography puzzle designed by a MIT professor, that was intended to keep it hidden for decades.
However, technology has moved quickly over the last 20 years. So, with that in mind, in 2019 a programmer by the name of Bernard Fabrot finally figured out how to crack the code. Having done so, he managed to gain access to the time capsule’s contents well before it was thought possible.
This MIT time capsule was stuffed full of items related to the internet and its origins. For instance, an outline for the World Wide Web — written by its creator Tim Berners-Lee in 1992 — was placed in the vessel. This document essentially broke down how Berners-Lee’s information system was going to work.
This time capsule also housed the first thing that the Microsoft company ever made. This was something known as the BASIC interpreter. Produced in 1975 allowed for easier use of a computer called the Altair. The Altair was among the very first wave of personal computers that people could work on at home.
Also inside the time capsule were instructions for using a program called VisiCalc. This, in essence, was the first ever spreadsheet software and was created by two men associated with MIT itself — Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. This software is said to have inspired Microsoft to go on and create Excel.
There was also a paper inside the time capsule which dated from 1978. This document detailed the foundations of something known as “RSA encryption algorithms.” This, essentially, is what allows for e-commerce to take place today. There was also a paper from 1962 that laid out a system for various people to use the same computer at the same time.
This time capsule related to the internet’s history is, as we’ve mentioned, just one of many scattered around MIT. Some of these are said to be hidden well away, while others are plain to see. There’s one, for example, which was placed beneath an enormous magnet some eight decades ago.
Another capsule was stowed away in 1957 as a means of marking the launch of a new laboratory. It was meant to stay hidden for an indeterminate period of time but this was the one that accidentally resurfaced again in 2015. Building works for a new facility on the MIT campus led to the vessel being discovered.
This is the time capsule which, you’ll remember, was initially mistaken for part of the university campus’ utility infrastructure. It was only after taking a closer look at the item that it became apparent that the vessel was holding artifacts of historic importance. Even though MIT had buried it, the capsule’s discovery was still quite the surprise.
In a statement from the university, Deborah Douglas, MIT Museum’s director of collections said, “MIT likes to be rational and future-oriented, but this is a remarkably sentimental activity and sweet moment. I think it reminds us of a community that also likes to mark special occasions and moments.”
The full story behind the time capsule eventually emerged shortly after its discovery. It had been stowed away in 1957 by the university’s president James R. Killian Jr. in tandem with an electrical engineering professor, Harold “Doc” Edgerton. This particular time, as Douglas explained in her statement, would have been an exciting one for technology enthusiasts.
As Douglas put it, “Remember that this was just four months prior to the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. MIT researchers were focused on developing the technologies of the future. And they were excited about the completion of the Compton Laboratories.
Douglas went on to describe the facilities which the time capsule intended to commemorate. She said, “The new building was to serve as the home of the Research Laboratory of Electronics [RLE], the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, and the Computation Center, and was to house a new IBM 704 mainframe computer. Students and researchers would be able to come to the building with their punch cards to run their studies.”
As for the container itself, this was specifically designed to last for a long time. Cylindrical in shape and made out of glass, the vessel was created by a pair of professional glassblowers named Anthony Velluto and Lawrence Ryan, who used blowtorches to seal the time capsule tight.
But what exactly was so special about this time capsule? After all, it’s far from the only one to be lying around the MIT campus. Well, it turns out that this one does actually stand out from the crowd. It is, in other words, a particularly significant historical treasure trove.
Put simply, the reason for this is down to the instructions which were placed inside the time capsule. You see, most vessels of this kind advise that they should be opened few decades down the line so that someone could witness both its internment and its opening. This one, however, implores that it stay sealed for quite a bit longer.
Douglas explained more in her statement. She said, “[The time capsule is] “very unusual in the sense that it proposes an opening date of 1,000 years from its burial. There is not enough information from what we have to discern how serious the time capsule’s creators were about that deadline.”
A thousand years is a long time, so measures had to be taken to ensure that the contents of the cylinder wouldn’t degrade. So, with this in mind, the capsule was pumped with argon gas. A small amount of carbon-14 was also put into the container, so that the people who found it in the future would be able to determine when it was buried in the event that its other contents were ruined.
A note written by MIT president James Killian was also inside the time capsule alongside its other contents. The note, written in 1957, explained that the vessel contained “documents and mementos which tell something of the state of science, technology and education. And, more specifically, the state of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
There were also a range of everyday objects inside the container. For example, there was an MIT mug dedicated to the class of 1957, a number of coins, an empty tonic bottle and a vial of penicillin. There was also a publication called A Scientist Speaks by Karl T. Compton and a special component of a computer which would have been cutting-edge back in the 1950s.
Deborah Douglas has suggested that this time capsule is representative of a more reflective side to MIT. It clearly shows that the institution is proud of its past and hopes to preserve it. Douglas said, “Normally our conversation with the future is through the things we invent or the discoveries we make.”
Douglas continued, “We don’t very often write actual letters, seal up boxes of memories, or create a hope chest for the future. But for all the sweetness and sentimentality of the time capsule, MIT does care passionately about the future, making this a lovely reminder of a quality the Institute is best known for.”
However, despite the fact that it was a pleasant surprise, the finding of the time capsule has interfered with its creators’ plan. They intended it to be opened after 1,000 years but it’s only been a few decades since it was hidden away. Thankfully, the container has remained sealed the entire time. In fact, we only know about what’s inside because of documents itemising it.
Now, the time capsule has reportedly been placed underground once again, somewhere on the MIT campus. The staff responsible for its reburial have also declared that more clear records of the capsule will be kept so that it’s not accidentally disturbed again. Hopefully, then, it may make it to the year 2957 as originally intended.
But what exactly did the people who buried the time capsule in the first place expect of the future? Well, if we consider the note inside the vessel written by MIT president James Killian, we might get a better idea. This message began, “To those who have come after us, greetings!”
Killian then went on to express his perspective on what the future might hold. There is, after all, every chance that technology from 1957 will look absolutely archaic by 2957. All knowledge, however, is built on what came before it, so it may well be interesting for people in the far-flung future to get a sense of how people from the middle of the 20 th century thought.
Killian wrote, “We cannot guess what the next millennium holds for the world or whether you will regard our age as one of science. But we are confident that you will have a greater understanding of the Universe and that we will have made some contribution to that understanding. We wish you continued success in the pursuit of knowledge.”
The time capsule is a wonderful gesture towards future generations. And as Deborah Douglas put it in her statement, it seems to reflect something about human nature. Speaking of time capsules, she said, “It’s part ship in a bottle, part letter to the future, and we do it often. We seem to have this impulse to collect and to be deliberate about communicating with our future selves.”