Who Invented the Time Capsule?

In his the last video, Brent from Cerro Gordo (aka Ghost Town Living) talked about “Time Capsules” as he was preparing one to be buried in the mines under his city. I’m only familiar with the concept because I’m watching American television (reminder: I’m French) and it intrigued me. Naturally, I started to look into:

Who made the first time capsule?

Before I forget, here is the definition of “time capsule” from Merriam-Webster: a container holding historical records or objects representative of current culture that is deposited (as in a cornerstone) for preservation until discovery by some future age.

We are not talking about science-fiction. No time travel at this point, just a good ol’ box full of stuff for future generations to discover.

The term “time capsule” was first officially coined by George E. Pendray during the New York World’s Fair in 1939. As a PR consultant for Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, he used it to describe the company’s exhibit (He also thought of calling it a “time bomb,” but it was 1939, and “bomb” was not a word to use).

Pendray’s Time Capsule was 90 inches long, with an interior diameter of 6.5 inches (16 cm), and weighed 800 pounds (360 kg). It was made of “cupaloy,” a high-conductivity copper alloy that has a very high corrosion resistance. Westinghouse claimed it had the same strength as mild steel. If we are to believe the plaque on the capsule, we can find in it: 22,000 pages of microfilm, 15 minutes of newsreel, an alarm clock, bifocals, and carrots. The time capsule was entombed inside a 50-foot-deep “Immortal Well” on the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows – in 1965, another capsule with everyday items such as a Beatles record, a bikini, a pack of Camel cigarettes, and a plastic Mickey Mouse cup, was placed nearby and both are scheduled for opening in the year 6939 A.D.

1939 – Time Capsule II from New York World’s Fair

It was the first time people talked about “time capsule,” but it was not the first time capsule. So…

What was the first time capsule?

Before we started to call them time capsules, some containers holding historical records were already buried. Maybe we still have not found the very first one, but some oldies were discovered. Charles D. Mosher, a photographer from Chicago, created what was then called a “Memorial Safe.” His idea was to put in a safe more than 10,000 portraits of notable Chicagoans and their wives, but also some literature about some of his preferred subjects like… eugenism. Apparently, Mosher was afraid of a future not so full of white Anglo-Saxon protestants – see “Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule.

Another “capsule” – the Century Safe – was put together for the occasion containing daguerreotypes and autographs of influential Americans collected by the New York publisher Anna Deihm.

The most famous one is even older. Back in 1795, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere placed a brass box in a cornerstone to mark the Massachusetts State House’s construction. The box was found in 2014, but it was not the first time it was uncovered. In 1855, new artifacts were added. Inside, newspapers, coins, and other artifacts were discovered, including a copper medal with an image of George Washington… and those words:

“This cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esquire, governor of the said Commonwealth.”

A few weeks ago (at the end of 2021), a time capsule found beneath the dismantled statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond was opened. The copper box was buried in 1887.

Maybe the next one to be found will be older!

This is not the first article inspired by Brent of Ghost Town Living, take a look at Who Invented Dynamite?

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