Eighty years ago today, some seven months before the opening of Expo 1939 New York, a time capsule was buried in the middle of the Expo site. The instructions were clear: it was not to be dug up until the year 6939 – some 5,000 years later.
The bold time capsule project was an initiative of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, with the aim of presenting a snapshot of the era while paying tribute to the Expo’s theme “The World of Tomorrow”. The electrical company aimed to immortalise life in the 1930s, based on the latest technologies and inventions of the era. By doing so, the highly publicised event was also familiarising people with the ‘modernity’ in which they lived.
The first challenge in making the time capsule was designing an object capable of protecting many objects, 15 metres underground, for 5,000 years. Using 'Cupaloy', a non-ferrous allow claimed to be highly resistant to corrosion, Westinghouse created a special bullet-shaped capsule measuring 2.3 metres in length, with a diameter of 22cm. The ensemble was completed with an airtight glass casing, to ensure maximum protection for the contents.
Deciding on which items were to go inside the capsule was a task in itself – how could the spirit of the time be condensed into such a small amount of space? Over 100 carefully chosen items made the final cut, including a pack of cigarettes, a 35mm camera, a safety razor, children’s toys, money, millions of pages of text on a microfilm, seed samples from common crops such as wheat, corn and cotton, and even handwritten messages from figures such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.
A 'Book of Record' was printed to detail the contents of the time capsule and to explain its purpose to future generations. It included a specially conceived 'Key to English' to decipher the English language for those who would uncover it 50 centuries later. Some 5,000 copies of the book were distributed to libraries, museums and even monasteries in order to ensure the time capsule is never forgotten and awareness of it would be passed on. In addition to the Book of Record, the following message was dye-stamped on the outside of the time capsule:
“Time capsule of Cupaloy, deposited on the site of the New York World's Fair on September 23, 1938, by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. If anyone should come upon this capsule before the year A.D. 6939. let him not wantonly disturb it, for to do so would be to deprive the people of that era of the legacy here left them. Cherish it therefore in a safe place.”
The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) is the intergovernmental organisation in charge of overseeing and regulating World Expos, Specialised Expos, Horticultural Expos and the Triennale di Milano.