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May2009
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Message in a Bottle

The concept of the time capsule is not recent. The “Epic of Gilgamesh,” among humanity's earliest literary works, begins with instructions on how to find a box of copper inside a foundation stone in the great walls of Uruk. In the box is Gilgamesh's tale, written on a lapis tablet.

Grover Whalen and A.W. Robertson watching the Westinghouse Time Capsule being lowered into its crypt for 5000 years, Flushing, New York. 1938 The Jefferson Building cornerstone was laid at 3:00 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1890

What is now thought of as a “time capsule” has more recent origins dating to 1937, when preparations for the 1939 New York World's Fair brought about suggestions to bury one for 5,000 years. The 1939 New York World's Fair time capsule was created by Westinghouse as part of its exhibit. It was 90 inches long, with an interior diameter of 6.5 inches, and weighed 800 pounds. Westinghouse named the copper, chromium and silver alloy “Cupaloy,” claiming it had the same strength as mild steel. Everyday items such as a spool of thread and doll, a Book of Record (description of the capsule and its creators), a vial of staple food-crop seeds, a microscope and a 15-minute RKO Pathé Pictures newsreel were included.

This first modern time capsule was followed in 1965 by a second capsule at the same site, but 10 feet north of the original. Both capsules are buried 50 feet below Flushing Meadows Park, the site of the fair. Both the 1939 and 1965 Westinghouse Time Capsules are meant to be opened in 6939.

The Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in 8113, has been called “the first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth” by the 1990 version of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Currently, four time capsules are “buried” in space. The two Pioneer Plaques—a pair of gold anodized aluminum plaques placed on board the 1972 Pioneer 10 and 1973 Pioneer 11 spacecraft, featuring a pictorial message—and the two Voyager Golden Records, containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, have been attached to spacecraft for the possible benefit of space travelers in the distant future. A fifth time capsule, the KEO satellite, will be launched in 2010 or 2011, carrying individual messages from Earth's inhabitants addressed to earthlings around the year 52,000, when KEO will return to Earth.

For those interested in putting together a personal or family capsule of their own, the Library’s Preservation Directorate has some guidelines. Things to keep in mind when putting one together include the chemical composition of the capsule container and its intended contents, individual packaging of contents, packing organization and protecting the capsule environment.

In celebration of the Library’s bicentennial in 2000, a time capsule was placed in a safe in the Librarian's ceremonial office in the Jefferson Building. It’s scheduled to be opened on the Library’s tricentennial, April 24, 2100. However, this isn’t the Library’s first. In 1890 a cornerstone containing a copper box holding contemporary documents about the Jefferson building's history was placed in the northeast corner of the building as it was being constructed.

Additionally, in 1975, then-Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin discovered a mysterious package on one of the shelves of the walk-in closet safe in his office. On the package someone had written, "To be opened only by the Librarian of Congress." Inside the box was a smaller container of blue cardboard with a handwritten label: "Contents of the President's pockets on the night of April 14, 1865." The president was Abraham Lincoln, and the night in question was his assassination. The items are on view in the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition.

More details on the Library’s time capsules can be found in an article in the December 2000 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.


A. Grover Whalen and A.W. Robertson watching the Westinghouse Time Capsule being lowered into its crypt for 5000 years, Flushing, New York. 1938. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-111449 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: NYWTS - SUBJ/GEOG--Time Capsules <item> [P&P]

B. The Jefferson Building cornerstone was laid at 3:00 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1890. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-93183 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: U.S. GEOG FILE - Washington, D.C.--Library of Congress Jefferson Building--Construction--Basement & first floor <item> [P&P]