9 Fascinating Time Capsules For Fellow Nerds

Everyone else wants to look into the future -- I want to find out about the past.
Publish date:
December 15, 2014
nerd stuff, history

If you're not a geek, you may have missed the big news last week: In Boston, a very old time capsule was uncovered in the foundations of the State House. It dates to 1795, which is pretty darn cool. It's also pretty darn fragile, which is why archaeologists are being extremely careful about X-rays and studies before they crack 'er open to see what's inside.

The capsule likely contains coins, papers, and other objects dating back to the era, and it might include artifacts from some guys you've probably heard of, like Paul Revere and Sam Adams. We already knew it was there (it had been uncovered so the contents could be transferred in the 1800s), but it's still fascinating to think about what might be lurking within -- and what we'll get to see before it gets buried again once the construction work that forced the city to remove it is done. (Does it still count as a time capsule if you've removed it a couple of times and documented the contents?)

The news got me thinking about the various boxes I've buried in the back yards of childhood homes -- most of which have probably disintegrated or sprung leaks, ensuring that their contents will be lost to time -- and some other cool time capsules out there.

1) The Voyager Golden Record

Time SPAAAAACE! NASA put this bad boy together as a message to anyone who might stumble upon it, with information about life on Earth, including sounds and images; it's embedded in a golden, well, record. (Hopefully aliens still use analog -- if they don't, luckily NASA included playing devices and basic illustrated instructions.) What's on it?

Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

2) World War One time capsule

You know how it're doing maintenance on your castle, and up pops a time capsule. This one happened to contain letters, photos, and other artifacts from soldiers in WWI Germany, which wasn't such a hot time to be alive and in Germany for pretty much anyone. With the wealth of historical information we have on the period, you might think that a time capsule would be a bit excessive, but it's actually kind of a cool item.

Ordinary soldiers often didn't get to tell their stories -- many of the novels, memoirs, and testimonies of the period are from officers. Likewise, the winners usually write the history (I know, you've heard that one before). The time capsule, which commemorated dead members of the regiment, offers a chance to learn more about the day-to-day lives of soldiers and their histories.

3) AIDS at 30

This isn't exactly a time capsule, but rather, photocopies of letters written and stored in a box in the early 1990s. The organizers asked participants to write letters to people 50 years in the future -- and the box appears to have since been lost. One of the organizers took a look at some of the letters in 2011, 30 years after the HIV/AIDS epidemic began to change the face of life in the US, especially for the LGBQT community, forever.

The notes we have are pretty heartbreaking, and a testimony to how terrifying AIDS was for San Francisco in the '80s: "AIDS has changed my life forever. It is hard to think of that time when AIDS will not be a big hole where my friends were."

4) What people used in 1913

This time capsule totally fascinates me because it's not about preserving critical historical information, commentaries, and relics. It doesn't include letters from famous officials or important artwork of the day. Instead, it's a testimony to the ordinary lives of people in 1913.

Opened, fittingly, in 2013, the capsule contained things like a cloche hat, various medicinal remedies, coffee, an ear of corn, textiles, and photographs of the local community. These glimpses into everyday life are exactly the sort of thing I love, because they provide a richer, fuller glimpse of what the world was like in the past. As a fan of history in general, I want to know not just how the upper classes lived, but also how the proletariat survived -- we have ample records of how wealthy people lived their lives thanks to diaries, paintings, photographs and more, but we often have to rely on second or thirdhand sources for information about other social classes. In this case, we got to see these ordinary items firsthand.

5) The National Millennium Time Capsule

This one isn't due to be opened until 2100, so some of you whippersnappers might make it to see this one, but it's pretty unlikely that I will. Reportedly, it contains a number of artifacts representative of our era, whatever that means. The contents were selected by Congressional and Presidential Medal of Honor winners along with schoolchildren from across the country, so it should be a fascinating mix when it gets unearthed.

This time capsule, created at the turn of some key history, also represents a really intriguing historical artifact. In many ways, it represents a very naive time in our history -- pre-11 September, pre-recession, pre-endless war. I wonder if will seem hopelessly quaint and outdated to those opening it in the future. It's a bit sad to think about the horrors that lay before us just a handful of years after we preserved such a hopeful testimony to the deeds of the 20th century.

6) Whoops

They may be brainiacs over at MIT, but occasionally they're a little flighty. Flighty as in building an 18 ton cyclotron directly over a time capsule installed in 1939. While the cyclotron is no longer operational, moving it would be a bit of a feat, so unless someone gets particularly intrepid (not outside the realm of possibility at MIT, I know), the time capsule is probably lost to, er, time.

7) For opera nerds only

Recording technology was not at its best in 1907, but it did exist. Which is why we now have a treasure trove of what opera sounded like in performance in 1907, and not only that, but we know what was popular at the time. (Hint: Some of the operas in the time capsule are pretty obscure now, while others are more well known -- and even accounting for the imperfections of sound quality, opera sounded different, too.)

Oddly enough, this time capsule was actually a promotional stunt for -- you guessed it -- a record company. I guess periodically we can thank publicity-hungry CEOs.

8) The world's largest time capsule

We all have to compensate for something. Harold Keith Davidsson apparently really wanted to be remembered by future generations as the builder of a giant capsule, because he built...a giant time capsule, and then when competition arose, he encased his existing construction inside another, even bigger one. We get it, Harold.

As one might imagine, it's chock-full of stuff from 1975, the year he put it together. Much of it is from Davidsson's personal life, as he clearly stated that his intent was to provide a record of what his life was like in the 1970s for future generations of his family.

9) French freeze-frame

What happens if you shut a mansion up for 100 years? Well, other than a whole lot of dust?

You get a fascinating glimpse into exactly what life was like (at least for the wealthy) 100 years ago. Maison Mantin is open to members of the public, in accordance with the owner's will; when he died in 1905, he demanded that the city wait 100 years before turning his home into a museum. Intriguingly, he didn't actually order the house to remain sealed, but it was left alone nonetheless (even by invading Germans), and it needed substantial refurbishment to address damage caused by insects and other unwanted visitors before it could be opened to the public.