Time capsule tips

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Photo of Colin Meads: Commons wiki/File:Colin_Meads_Sheep.jpg

From the misty annals of childhood comes a memory of the town fathers burying a time capsule, not to be opened for 100 years. They had asked the townsfolk for suggestions as to what the capsule should contain and our little urchin’s cabal suggested such items as an alarm clock (with two bells atop), a gob-stopper, that famous photo of All Black Colin Meads with a sheep under each arm, a train ticket and a can of pick-up-sticks. Somebody said we should get an episode of Life with Dexter and put that in too.

Digression alert: it is untrue that Meads (1960s rugby version of Paul Gallen), kept fit running up and down hills on his farm with a sheep under each arm.

Historians and archivists may scoff, but the practice of encapsulating the trivial lives of a cross-section of society for future generations is still in vogue. Time capsules are often buried beneath the foundations of a new building to mark a special occasion, a centenary, perhaps. The idea is to set a date in the future when they should be dug up and opened.

General interest in the concept increased after Westinghouse created one as part of its exhibit for the 1939 New York World Fair.

The 2.3 metre long, 360kg capsule, made of copper, chromium and silver alloy, contained items including a spool of thread and doll, a vial of food crop seeds, a microscope and a 15-minute newsreel. There were also microfilm spools containing such prosaic fare as a Sears Roebuck catalogue.

Wikipedia’s entry says Westinghouse buried a second capsule in 1965. Both are set to be opened in 6939, that is, 4,922 years from now.

Sometimes time capsules rise to the surface before the appointed time. When the statue of John Robert Godley, the founder of Christchurch, toppled to the ground during the 2011 earthquake, workers pawing through the rubble found two time capsules under the plinth. A glass bottle containing parchment and a long metal container were handed to the Christchurch museum.

Director Anthony Wright told the Daily Mail a third capsule was discovered beneath the base of the cross of the badly damaged Christchurch Cathedral. All three capsules were opened a month later and were found to contain items including old newspapers and photographs, a City of Christchurch handbook (1922-23), what appears to be a civic balance sheet, a few coins and a brass plate.

So what’s it all about, then? As self-confessed time capsule nerd Matt Novak writes, time capsules rarely reveal anything of historical value. In many ways, time capsules are like small private museums which are locked up for 100 years or more and nobody is allowed to visit.

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Time capsule in Seattle containing seeds. Photo by Eli Duke (flickr)

The exemplar of the genre so far is the 200-year old Boston time capsule, discovered in January by construction crews. The capsule was set into the cornerstone of a building by one of the nation’s founding fathers, Samuel Adams, and patriot silversmith Paul Revere. The contents of the capsule (coins, newspapers, photographs and a silver plaque inscribed by Revere), now belong to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The National Archives of Australia maintains a web page dedicated to serving people who are planning to bury a time capsule for posterity.

The NAA says careful choice of materials to be included in a time capsule will contribute to the longevity of both contents and capsule.

The latter is worth bearing in mind, given that witnesses to the Christchurch unearthing said one of the capsules ‘smelled like blue cheese.’

The International Time Capsule Society estimates there are between 10,000 and 15,000 time capsules worldwide.

The notion is popular with schools, particularly those with a strong sense of tradition. In celebration of its golden jubilee in 2007, Epping Boys High School of Sydney (whose alumni includes rock musician Iva Davies and barrister and TV presenter Geoffrey Robertson) invited Prime Minister John Howard to plant a new time capsule but also, as the Old Boys Union reported, open the one buried in 1982 (the silver jubilee). Alas, the school was closed for the holidays, so your intrepid reporter was unable to unearth a description of the capsule’s contents.

This set me to thinking just what should be inside a time capsule buried, for example, in the foundations of a massive new public housing eco village planned for, say, Wentworth.

It would have to be a big-arse capsule, because I’d be recommending items for posterity include the mechanical rabbit from Wentworth Park. If that is not possible, then at least include a Dapto Dogs racebook, so citizens 100 years hence can ponder the curious sport of dog racing.

The capsule should contain a large lump of brown coal (they won’t miss it, honest), so future generations can see why the planet went amiss.

She Who is Glass Half Full This Week says we ought to include some Aussie inventions: plastic money, the electronic pacemaker, the black box recorder, the cochlear implant…

Countering all this world-changing innovation, we need to show the substance abuse issues of the 21st century – a hemp shoulder bag filled with all the illicit drugs of the day, and for good measure a bottle of whatever young kids turn to when binge drinking, and a packet of fags, adorned with graphic images of tongue and lip cancer.

It might not work in a hundred years’ time, but we should include a smart phone, charger and spare battery, along with a hard-copy cheat sheet. And yes, what 2016 time capsule would be complete without a victorious Queensland State of Origin team photo, hunkering down, singing aye-yai-yippy-yippy in 17 different keys, making odd, triumphant finger gestures.

The NAA might warn us not to use ephemeral recording materials, but what else do we have? I’d suggest a special DVD edition of Q&A with Alan Jones, Steve Price, Andrew Bolt, Phillip Adams, John Pilger and Marcia Langton discussing indigenous land rights, refugees and free speech, with Tony Jones trying to keep them all on point.

One could have such fun filling a time capsule. Items bound to puzzle people in 2116 could include: a (new) disposable nappy, a coffee pod, a Go Card, a government-issue hearing aid, one of those ear-expanding discs some young people wear so they can look like primitive tribes from darkest Africa. We could employ a taxidermist to stuff a cane toad and a feral cat and include literature explaining their stories. I’d be tempted to Include copies of every newspaper editorial before (and after) the 2016 election, just to show that whatever passes for punditry 100 years from now was always thus.

It could be fun to somehow preserve a ‘best of Facebook photo album’ to show future generations what people did with their spare time. It would not take long to curate images of tattooed people, pierced people, nude bike riders, hipsters, cats and dogs doing odd but cute things, photos of what people had for lunch, independent bands nobody ever heard of (now or in 100 years’ time), absolute proof that the earth is flat, out of focus selfies, a video of a serious young dude performing a handfarting cover of a Pink Floyd song (this really is on YouTube. Ed) and 17 versions of the same sunset.

Oh, and let’s not forget to include a laminated copy of that Friday guy’s take on time capsules.