Image: Alice Webb-Liddall and Toby Morris

A brief history of the world in six time capsules

They’re under parliament buildings, in opera houses, even floating through space. And now The Spinoff is about to bury one for 2020. While stashing stuff for future humans to unearth has been a tradition for thousands of years, when did ‘time capsules’ become a thing?

At the beginning of high school, it is these days tradition for students to write letters to themselves to be opened on their last day of year 13. It’s often called a “time capsule”, and in a way, it mimics the effects of a real time capsule, even if a large part of me doubts the box with all the letters was ever buried in the corner of the soccer field for the short five years of secondary school.

This year has been a momentous one, and The Spinoff is commemorating it by putting a real time capsule in the ground, in the hopes that humans of the future can learn a bit about the things that mattered in 2020. To help set the stage, we wanted to look back at a concept that is all about casting forwards. Here, then, are six notable time capsules that help tell the story.

While the first usage of the term “time capsule” can only be dated back to the 1930s, the concept is much, much older. Commonly regarded as the “earliest fictional written work, the Epic of Gilgamesh contained instructions to uncover a copper box inside the great walls of Uruk, at least 5,000 years ago. The pyramids and tombs contained within were time capsules in their own right. The list below contains only modern time capsules, since around the time when the phrase itself was coined.

Westinghouse time capsules

The first boxes of assorted objects to be called a time capsule were the Westinghouse Time Capsules, two rocket-shaped cylinders that were created by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in 1939 and 1965. They are set to open in the year 6900 and are buried 15 metres beneath a New York park.

The capsules contain many items seen as “everyday” when they were sealed, such as a fountain pen, one dollar in change and a packet of Camel cigarettes. It’s a long-lasting capsule, and as such, each item was inspected to ensure it would not decompose into any harmful gas or acid in its thousands of years underground – avoiding a Pandora’s box situation for those who will open it.

Bowen State Building time capsule

In 2017 a group of engineers uncovered a small capsule behind a granite plaque in the Bowen State Building next to parliament in Wellington. National MP Maggie Barry was very excited about the find, which turned out to be a newspaper from 1959, a bag of old coins and some building plans.

“I can’t believe there’s a cigarette advertisement here. That really is a sign of the times!” Barry said when the capsule was opened. Luckily, a lot of time capsules are a bit more exciting than that.

Voyager Spacecrafts I and II

The Voyager Spacecrafts I and II both carried “time capsules” of sorts, each a golden phonograph record which Nasa says contain “sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth”. These sounds include recorded greetings from humans in 55 languages and a variety of natural sounds like surf, wind and thunder. The craft were sent into space to explore the outer solar system, and both are still working away over 43 years after their launch.

Christchurch time capsules

The Canterbury capsules were unearthed by accident, during the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. The three time capsules were opened by then-mayor Bob Parker, and contained newspapers dating back to 1922, a letter detailing Canterbury’s history and a small book titled “City of Christchurch, New Zealand 1922/23.”

At the opening of the capsules, Parker said “it reminds us of what we no longer have, but we’ll have it again”, a very ominous quote that makes no sense.

(These capsules were buried about a decade before the word “time capsule” was coined, and so this example goes against my own criteria. I am sorry, and I have written future me an angry letter complaining about it.)

Crypt of Civilisation

One of the world’s most famous time capsules is named the “Crypt of Civilisation“, an entire room of information sealed off at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. Thornwell Jacobs got the idea for this “crypt” from the openings of the Egyptian pyramid and tomb openings in the 1920s and is now considered the “father of the modern time capsule”.

Sealed in 1940, the Crypt of Civilisation contains myriad objects and files, designed for opening in the year 8113. These objects include 800 classic works of literature, a tape recording of a hog caller and some dental floss.

The Future Library

The Future Library is one example of a modern time capsule, holding stories of the present that are being preserved for the future. It shows how much time capsules, as well as the things they hold have changed with time. What once was a steel casing buried under a notable statue or in the walls of a building is now becoming more complex, the capsule itself in some cases has morphed into a metaphor.

In this case, the capsule is part of the project – it’s art as much as it is history. The future library currently exists as a forest, the idea being that in 100 years’ time, the 1,000 spruce trees planted in 2014 will be cut down and used to print 100 previously unseen stories by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Karl Ove Knausgård. 

As an office of under 50 people, and with just over a week to complete our time capsule, The Spinoff won’t be planting 1,000 trees. We also won’t be filling up a room at a local university or sending our trinkets into space (though if RocketLab was into it, this could change). 

The history of time capsules has included some of the most mundane, extraordinary and plain weird parts of recent history, and with any luck, The Spinoff Aotearoa 2020 time capsule will be a bit of the latter two.

What do you think belongs in the Spinoff Aotearoa 2020 time capsule? Let us know by emailing info@thespinoff.co.nz.




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.