Georgia Perimeter College Newsroom

Professor Paul Hudson featured in Wall Street Journal article on time capsules

Trying to Capture a Moment, Many Lose Track of Time

(reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 2015)

One day in March 1963, as workers were building Houston’s Astrodome, politicians and business leaders gathered at the construction site. They held a brief ceremony and placed a time capsule of mementos into a hole. Workers then covered it over and resumed construction of the 9-acre complex.

Earlier this year, Ed Emmett, the top elected official in Houston’s Harris County, saw a photo of the event accompanying a newspaper article. He asked his staff about it. “They all went, ‘What time capsule?’” he says.

Mr. Emmett sent in the sheriff’s bomb squad with ground-penetrating radar to find the capsule. Their hypothesis: it is likely buried under a concrete support. But digging for it could structurally damage the dome, they say.

“Basically we don’t have any idea” where it is, Mr. Emmett says.

Many people, from small town mayors to the late Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, have felt the need to memorialize the present by sending a love letter to the future. But most time capsules are lost, says Paul Hudson, a 64-year-old history professor at Georgia Perimeter College and president of the four-member International Time Capsule Society.

“People seem to forget about them as soon as they bury them,” he says. “They move on to other things.”

Even the time capsule that inspired the society’s creation—the “Crypt of Civilization” at Oglethorpe University outside Atlanta—was itself forgotten for decades. Mr. Hudson was an Oglethorpe undergraduate in 1970 when he stumbled on the crypt’s sealed door in a basement hallway crammed with text books and junk. It was one of the most famous time capsules in the world when it was sealed with fanfare in 1940. It isn’t supposed to be opened until the year 8113.

“I saw this large stainless steel door and there were cobwebs on it,” says Mr. Hudson on a recent visit to the basement. “I read the plaque and I thought, ‘What is this?’ ”

In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the crypt, Mr. Hudson and three other men launched the society to spark interest in time capsules and teach best practices. Many capsules are lost to poor record keeping or forgetfulness, says Mr. Hudson, who students once called “the crypt keeper.” Others are stolen, vandalized or so poorly made they collapse into a “soggy mess” when recovered, he says.

The society estimates 9,000 of the world’s 10,000 time capsules have been lost.

“Lots of people just poop out,” says Will Jarvis, 70, author of a book on time capsules and another society co-founder.

The loose-knit society fields questions every week from people looking to build, or find, a time capsule. It posts a to-do list on Oglethorpe’s website for time capsule makers: make sure it is securely sealed, be sure to document when and where you seal it, and be careful what’s in it (books and clothes, yes; food that can spoil, no). On its list of don’ts: No burying.

In 1983, actors from the television show “M*A*S*H” decided to bury a medical chest full of souvenirs—dog tags, a rosary, surgical clamps—on the Hollywood set where the show was filmed, according to Alan Alda, a star of the show. They were taking a cue from an episode in which the characters bury a time capsule, he says.

The actors hoped the capsule would stay buried for 50 or 100 years, he says, but about a month or two later the land was sold off for an office building. A construction worker found the chest and called to ask what to do with it. They told the man he could keep it. “And it’s the last time I’m going to have anything to do with a time capsule,” Mr. Alda said in an email.

Also in 1983, organizers of the Aspen International Design Conference buried a capsule that included a computer mouse of Steve Jobs, a Rubik’s Cube and an eight-track cassette by the Moody Blues. It was supposed to be dug up in 2000, but after landscaping, no one could find it. The National Geographic television program “Diggers,” using metal detectors and a backhoe, uncovered the 13-foot-long metal cylinder in 2013.

This June, children at Camp Wewannago in New Lenox, Ill., found a time capsule made by campers in 2005. The capsule, a wooden chest holding plastic bracelets and other mementos, was supposed to be opened in 2006, following an annual tradition. But after the sand volleyball courts were renovated, no one could find the chest. The new annual game became trying to find the missing capsule. This year, they did.

“It was luck,” says Jason Braglia, 30, the park district’s program coordinator. He says in a few weeks camp counselors intend to bury a new time capsule. The district has a plan for this year’s capsule, he says: “Make a map.”

Humans have been trying to preserve historic treasures in containers for the future or the afterlife since at least ancient Egypt. For centuries, the Masons held ceremonies and put boxes of mementos in cornerstones of new buildings. One ceremony took place in 1793, when George Washington placed an inscribed silver plate under a cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. People have been wondering for more than two centuries which stone holds the plate.

One of the most famous time capsules was buried in 1938 for the 1939 New York World’s Fair by the Westinghouse Electric Corp. That capsule, the location of which is clearly marked in Queens, is supposed to be opened in 6939.

The Atlanta crypt—a former indoor pool beneath the entrance to a Gothic-style building—is packed with material from 1940, including early televisions, 14 samples of Formica and a script from “Gone With The Wind.” Its creator, the late Oglethorpe President Thornwell Jacobs, chose 8113 as the year for the capsule to be opened because it was as far in the future from 1936—the year he declared his plan—as 4241 B.C.—the date that he believed the Egyptian calendar was established—was in the past.

Though the crypt was neglected for years, today the small liberal arts college takes better care of its oddity. The cobwebs are gone, and the capsule’s shiny door and explanatory plaques sit in a well-lit hallway between a fire extinguisher and a hand-sanitizer dispenser. If no one forgets about it again, plans are to open it in about 6,098 years.