Crypt of Civilization
Crypt of Civilization interior contents
The Crypt of Civilization is a sealed airtight chamber located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The crypt consists of preserved artifacts scheduled to be opened in the year 8113 AD. The 1990 Guinness Book of World Records cites the crypt as the “first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth.”
Thornwell Jacobs (1877–1956), referred to as “the father of the modern time capsule,” claims to be the first in modern times to conceive the idea of consciously preserving manmade objects for posterity by placing them in a sealed repository. Jacobs’ inspiration for the project was sparked by the Egyptian pyramid and tomb openings in the 1920s. He was struck by the scarcity of historical information available from these ancient civilizations and imagined having a “running story” of the customs of human life from beginning to the 1930s modern culture.
Most historians agreed that the establishment of the Egyptian calendar—the first fixed date in history—occurred in the year 4241 BC. Jacobs noted that 6,177 years had passed between when the Egyptian calendar was established in 4241 BC and the present year (AD 1936). This figure served as the rationale for setting the opening of the crypt for 8113, as it was 6,177 years away.
Jacobs’ Crypt of Civilization intrigued America and was duplicated by many others. In the mid 1930s George Edward Pendray, a public relations executive for Westinghouse Electric Company, was given an assignment to come up with a promotional event for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Pendray, also an amateur rocketeer, suggested burying a “time capsule,” a sealed rocket-shaped vessel made of a metal alloy called cupaloy. The Westinghouse time capsule was a 7-foot-long (2.1 m) rocket-shaped tube with a metal exterior that encapsulated articles in a plexiglass inner tube. Pendray’s project was originally named a “time bomb” but the name was later changed to time capsule. Pendray’s time capsule is scheduled to be opened in 5,000 years and Jacobs’ Crypt of Civilization will be opened in just over 6,000 years.
The Crypt of Civilization chamber is positioned on Appalachian granite bedrock located in the foundation of Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall, a granite Gothic style academic building at Oglethorpe University. The room was converted from a swimming pool from 1937 to 1940 and the walls were lined with enamel plates embedded in pitch.
The Crypt room is 20 feet (6 m) long, 10 feet (3 m) high and 10 feet (3 m) wide. The chamber is under a stone roof seven feet thick and lies over a two-foot stone floor. It is sealed with a stainless steel door welded in place.
Thomas Kimmwood Peters (1884–1973) supervised construction and served as its archivist.
The National Bureau of Standards, Washington, D.C., gave professional and technical advice for the artifacts and construction of the crypt. The bureau also recommended how artifacts should be stored. Many artifacts are stored in stainless steel receptacles lined with glass and filled with an inert gas to prevent aging, a concept later carried over to the Westinghouse Time Capsules. The chamber resembles a cell of an Egyptian pyramid with artifacts positioned on shelves and the floor.
Many of the artifacts for the Crypt of Civilization were donated, including contributions from King Gustav V of Sweden and Eastman Kodak. Suggestions for items to include in the crypt included items varying from “a pair of garters” to “a can opener” to “a dry martini complete with olive.”
Included in the crypt are airtight receptacles containing microfilm on cellulose acetate film containing more than 800 classic works of literature, including the Bible, the Koran, Homer’s Iliad, and Dante’s Inferno. There are approximately 640,000 pages included. A backup metal film system resides in the crypt as well. An original copy of the script for Gone With the Wind was donated by movie producer David O. Selznick to be included as well.
The crypt also contains voice recordings of historical figures such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Franklin Roosevelt. Unusual sound clips were also included such as the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller.
Jacobs addressed those who will open the crypt in 8113 in a note hoping for future efforts for preservation, saying, The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.
Peters placed electric microreaders and projectors in the vault to enable viewing and listening to these recordings. He provided a generator operated by a windmill to drive the apparatus, as well as a seven-power magnifier to read the microfilm records by hand in the event that the current form of electricity is not in use in 8113 AD. Peters even included some current day scientific instruments.
Unusual artifacts included are seed samples, dental floss, the contents of a woman’s purse, some Artie Shaw records, an electric toaster, a pacifier, a specially sealed bottle of Budweiser beer, a typewriter, a radio, a cash register, an adding machine, a set of Lincoln Logs, and plastic toys of Donald Duck, the Lone Ranger, and a Negro doll.
Some of the last items placed in the Crypt of Civilization were steel plates of the Atlanta Journal newspaper reporting on World War II.
Jacobs spoke on nationwide radio on NBC in New York City in 1937 to promote the crypt. A dedication ceremony on the Oglethorpe University campus, led by David Sarnoff of Radio Corporation of America occurred in May, 1938. Peters included segments of Paramount newsreel films of this occasion in the crypt as well as film he had created about the crypt entitled, The Stream of Knowledge (1938).
On May 25, 1940, Jacobs and Peters sealed the crypt in a solemn ceremony that was broadcast by Atlanta’s WSB radio . Notable figures present at the ceremony included Dr. Amos Ettinger, Dr. M. D. Collins, Mayor William B. Hartsfield, Ivan Allen, Jr., Clark Howell, Governor Eurith D. Rivers, and Postmaster General James A. Farley. The door was welded shut and a plaque was fused to it with a Message to the Generations of 8113 from Jacobs.
This Crypt contains memorials of the civilization which existed in the United States and the world at large during the first half of the twentieth century. In receptacles of stainless steel, in which the air has been replaced by inert gasses, are encyclopedias, histories, scientific works, special editions of newspapers, travelogues, travel talks, cinema reels, models, phonograph records, and similar materials from which an idea of the state and nature of the civilization which existed from 1900 to 1950 can be ascertained. No jewels or precious metals are included.
We depend upon the laws of the county of DeKalb, the State of Georgia, and the government of the United States and their heirs, assigns, and successors, and upon the sense of sportsmanship of posterity for the continued preservation of this vault until the year 8113, at which time we direct that it shall be opened by authorities representing the above governmental agencies and the administration of Oglethorpe University. Until that time we beg of all persons that this door and the contents of the crypt within may remain inviolate.
Peters included a machine called a “Language Integrator” in front of the sealed chamber to teach the openers how to speak English, which was another concept carried on to the Westinghouse Time Capsules.
An entry from Jacobs’ diary on April 1937 reads, “We have been in ‘Time’ . . . ‘Reader’s Digest’, Walter Winchell’s radio column … and in newspapers from London to Australia.
There have been numerous retrospectives on the Crypt of Civilization by the Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CNN, National Public Radio, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, New York Times and others since the seal date.
After the sealing of the crypt in 1940, media organizations continued to re-visit the crypt in news stories every decade. By 1970, however, it had been virtually forgotten.
The International Time Capsule Society was formed at Oglethorpe University in 1990 on the fiftieth anniversary of the sealing of the Crypt of Civilization. This organization studies the variety of “time capsules” created worldwide.
The Crypt of Civilization regained prominence in millennium observances from 1999 to 2001. It was featured on television and covered by numerous newspapers.
The crypt was featured in an episode of Life After People: The Series on the History Channel.