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Martin Pawley: not much time for capsules

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There seems to be a craze for time capsules, so much so that it is becoming hard to take them seriously. A couple of years ago there was the story of the Florida time capsule buried in 1947 that was supposed to be opened in 1997, but no one could remember where it was. Then just before Christmas came reports of a capsule being dug up in the course of trying to bury another in California, and the anti-climactic opening of an 1895 time capsule in New Zealand that was supposed to contain important papers but turned out to have nothing in it but water and a button.

The term 'time capsule' was officially invented for the 1939 World Fair (some of those buried before then were ominously called 'Time Bombs'), and the Westinghouse time capsule buried on the Flushing Meadows site still exists, not scheduled to be opened for another 39 years. However, it is not always necessary to wait that long. One of the two time capsules buried in Osaka Castle Park at the end of Expo '70 is supposed to come up for inspection next year. The Osaka capsules were substantial stainless steel containers about the size of atomic bombs, weighing in at one and a half tonnes each. One demonstration model and two real ones were displayed in the Matsushita Pavilion during Expo '70. The real ones were sealed and filled with argon gas to protect their contents. One is supposed to be opened in 2000 and at 100-year intervals thereafter, and the other is not to be touched until 6970. Each has the same things inside, 2068 items chosen by a panel of 632 intellectuals. There are the usual scientific and technological wonders - including plans to build a domestic ultrasonic bath - as well as examples of contemporary art. A scroll depicts Japanese life in far-off 1970 and an atlas indicates the position of Osaka on the globe. The rest is stocking-filler stuff: a miniature library of books, pairs of Japanese sandals and socks with individual toes, and a film of 'facial expressions of contemporary people'.

In order to find the opening of the Osaka capsules fascinating, readers would be well advised to miss out next year and every hundredth year for a millennium or two.

Perhaps the only really interesting time capsule for connoisseurs of the genre so far promises to be the one at the headquarters of the Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. This is the enormous 'Crypt of Civilization' built by time-capsule fanatic Thornwell Jacobs, who calculated that 1940 was the mid-point of human history and thus beat all-comers by ordering that his crypt not be disturbed until 8113.

There really is a Time Capsule Society, which struggles hard to maintain a register of authorised capsules. Lately, it has been showing signs of desperation. The us is the world leader in time capsules and tens of thousands have now been buried there, but the society says most will be lost or destroyed rather than opened in wonder in thousands of years' time, because their instigators have lacked what it calls 'a proper sense of stewardship'.

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