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nighttime image of the tower with a light pillar with concentric rings of decreasing size from top to bottom
Westinghouse tower, 1939 Worlds Fair. (Gottscho-Schleisner Collection/Library of Congress)

“A ‘Time Capsule’ Capable of Lasting 5,000 Years”

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This guest post was authored by 2023 Junior Fellow Noelle Charbonneau who is a Senior at Grand Valley State University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts in history and psychology.

As a Junior Fellow in Science, Technology & Business, I worked on a project that had me sorting through hundreds of miscellaneous pamphlets relating to science or business in the early 20th century. I was asked to write a post highlighting a collection item from this project, but it was somewhat of a challenge to find one standout item from the masses. In the end, I chose “The Story of the Time Capsule,” a pamphlet which tells the story of the manufacture and contents of the first Westinghouse time capsule. This time capsule is a fascinating snapshot for both science and business, capturing the new or prominent technologies and companies of the 1930s.

The capsule was created by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, as a commemoration of American industry. Intended to preserve the memory of the 20th century, the time capsule included information and objects about numerous technological advancements, processes, and products that represented the culmination of modern, particularly American, society. “The Story of the Time Capsule” has this to say:

“Five thousand years from now the peoples of the future will look back upon us as we look back on the early Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians. It was the plan of Westinghouse engineers to provide them with more knowledge of us than we have of any of the ancient peoples who lived before us.”

The capsule contains more than a hundred physical items that showcase products used in daily life, some from notable companies that still exist today. These include, but not limited to:

An Ode to Industry

citation entries 203-206 are photographs of Westinghouse; 207-217 are agricultural statistics for farm labor, machinery, farm size primarily from the Department of Agriculture; 218-221 are facts and figures about automobile manufacturing and a history of the industry in America; 222-238 the entries cover aviation history an facts and figures with times tables for TWA, United, Eastern, American, Northwest, Pan American, Air France, Imperial Airways, Swissair, Swedish Air Ways, Canadian Colonial Airways; 239was information about sips and shiping; 240-245 looked at the chemical industry with discoveries, history, information on applied and industrial chemestry; 246-248 entries were for the coal mining industry with an introduction and information including characteristics of Pennsylvania Anthracite; 249-251 entries wee on communications particular information on the telegraph and telephone; 252-256 entries on food industries including preservation, service and supply, canning; the story of Frosted Foods from Birdseye; and nutritive aspects of canned foods.
Partial list of microfilm contents in the time capsule in from “The Story of the Time Capsule,” Westinghouse Manufacturing and Electric Company, 1939. (Image courtesy of Noelle Charbonneau)

In addition to physical items, the capsule contains microfilm covering roughly 22,000 pages of text and images, some of which are dedicated to the industries and scientific advancements of the 1930s. The automotive and aviation industries were not new at the time of the capsule’s creation, but their inclusion highlights the rapid growth and widespread commercialization of transportation in the 1930s. More than 20 million cars were on American roads by 1930, and roughly 1.2 million passengers traveled on commercial airlines in 1938. Other companies and industries represented in the time capsule, like Birdseye frozen foods, came onto the market for the first time in the 1930s and continue to be items of daily use even today.

A Marvel of Modern Engineering

The capsule itself was a feat of engineering. Westinghouse set a lofty goal of creating a material that would preserve the capsule’s buried contents for 5,000 years, roughly the same time that separates the 20th century from the ancient Egyptians. The pamphlet references engineers working on the problem by saying:

“It was decided that the best material would be a metallic alloy of high corrosion resistance and considerable hardness, non-ferrous (containing no iron), and preferably consisting principally of copper, oldest of the metals used by man.”

The result was an alloy the engineers called “Cupaloy,” comprised of 99.4% copper, with 0.5% chromium and 0.1% silver additives. This particular alloy was chosen for its resistance to corrosion, especially in salt water, and the fact that it could be tempered like steel.

The inner chamber of the capsule was constructed with Pyrex (borosilicate) glass to withstand temperature changes and filled with nitrogen gas to preserve the capsule’s contents.

two images left one shows the time capsule under the Westinghouse World's Fair building at latitude 40 44' 34" .089 north of the Euqator; Longitude 73 50' 43" .842 west of Greenwich; the one on the right is a cross section of the 7 foot 6 inch capsule that is shaped like a torpedo showing the eyebyolt for lifting, message to finders, threaded sealed joints, contents, pyrex glass inner shell, water proof mastic, glass wool nose cushion, and cupaloy capsule
The underground location of the buried capsule and the cross-sectional diagram of the capsule from “The Story of the Time Capsule,” Westinghouse Manufacturing and Electric Company, 1939. (Image courtesy of Noelle Charbonneau)

Finding the Capsule in the Future

On September 23rd, 1938, the capsule was buried fifty feet below what would be the site of the World’s Fair. The 1939 capsule was joined by a second in 1965 and the burial site for the two time capsules was marked with a granite stone.

To ensure that the capsule would be discovered and interpreted, Westinghouse also published a “Book of Record,” containing a complete inventory of the capsule’s contents which was distributed to some 3,000 libraries, museums, and religious institutions across the globe, along with instructions for locating the capsule and translating its written materials from the original English into the future finders’ native language. The Book of Record was a product of collaboration between several museums and libraries to safeguard the book’s longevity and replicability.  The translation guides were created by Dr. John P. Harrington at the Smithsonian Institution. The book itself was printed and bound in accordance with standards set by the National Archives, the New York Public Library, and the American Library Association, in order to preserve the text as long as possible, so as to ensure that the record could be accurately translated and reproduced throughout the intended 5,000-year span of the capsule’s existence, as new dialects and languages are created.

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