Crypt of Civilization – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
The Crypt of Civilization, a millennia-old time capsule, is a chamber sealed behind a stainless steel door in 1940 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. The crypt is the “first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for all future inhabitants or visitors to planet Earth”, according to the Guinness book of World Folders (1990).
Origins of the Crypt
The President of Oglethorpe University, Thornwell Jacobs (1877-1956), in an article from November 1936 American scientist magazine, claimed to be the first to conceive of the idea of consciously preserving artifacts for posterity by placing them in a sealed repository. While engaged in research and inspired by the openings of the Egyptian pyramids in the 1920s, Jacobs was struck by the relative lack of information about ancient civilizations. Later he wrote of a unique plan to preserve a “running history” of life and customs, to show the ways of life in 1936 as well as the accumulated knowledge of mankind up to that time.
Jacobs has proposed the distant date of the year 8113 for the opening of the crypt. He calculated this date from the first fixed date in history, 4241 BC. BC, when the Egyptian calendar was established. Exactly 6,177 years had passed between 4241 BC and 1936 AD. Jacobs projected the same time period forward, arriving at 8113 for the opening of the crypt, so that historians and archaeologists in the far future could get a clear picture of the middle of history.
The idea of the Crypt of Civilization fascinated the American public and was quickly imitated. The Westinghouse Company, which was planning a promotional event for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, initiated a project to bury a seven-foot-long torpedo-shaped sealed ship of alloy metal, which was not to be opened before 5000 years. George Pendray of Westinghouse called the project a time capsuleand the English language acquired a new term almost overnight.
Construction and preparation of the crypt
Oglethorpe’s crypt is half-subterranean, on the lower level of a granite Gothic building, Phoebe Hearst Hall, in a room that had housed a swimming pool with a waterproof foundation. Remodeling of the chamber took place from 1937 to 1940. Construction included raising the floor with concrete and lining the walls with pitch-encrusted enamel plaques. The crypt is twenty feet long, ten feet wide, and ten feet high. It sits on a two foot stone floor and under a seven foot thick stone roof.
The National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, provided technical advice for the construction of the crypt and the storage of the objects therein. The bureau recommended that many items be stored in glass-lined, nitrogen-filled stainless steel containers to prevent aging. He also approved of Jacobs’ plan to seal off the chamber with a stainless steel door panel.
Jacobs appointed Thomas Kimmwood Peters to oversee the construction of the crypt and serve as his archivist. Peters, inventor and photographer, invented the first microfilm camera using 35mm film to photograph documents. From 1937 to 1940, Peters and a team of student assistants carried out an ambitious microfilming project to place cellulose acetate film in airtight containers. As a backup in case the acetate did not survive, Peters prepared a paper-thin metallic double film to place in the crypt. Peters secured for storage many items, all of which were donated. The hundreds of contributors were as diverse as King Gustav V of Sweden and the Eastman Kodak company.
In April 1937, Jacobs gave a national radio program on NBC in New York, in which he explained the crypt as an “archaeological duty” of his generation. He also recorded his “Message to the Generations of 8113 AD”. In May 1938, in an outdoor ceremony on the campus of Oglethorpe University, David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America dedicated the stainless steel door to the crypt, which was to be sealed two years later . . Paramount News filmed the occasion. Peters included these segments in The flow of knowledge (1938), a film about the crypt.
Fill and seal the crypt
Jacobs envisioned the crypt as complete and intended for an entire “museum” of not only formal knowledge accumulated over 6,000 years, but also of popular culture from the 1930s. Inside the crypt are wooden boxes stainless steel containing microfilms of many classic works of literature including the Bible, Quran, Homer Iliadand that of Dante Hell. Producer David O. Selznik donated an original copy of the film’s script carried away by the wind. There are approximately 640,000 microfilm pages from over 800 works.
Peters used similar methods to capture and store photographs and film. Voice recordings of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Franklin Roosevelt are among the items placed in the crypt, along with sound clips of the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor and a hog call champion. To make sure the crypt openers could see and hear these recordings, Peters placed electric microreaders and searchlights in the vault. In the event that electricity is not used at 8113, the crypt contains a windmill-powered generator to drive the device, as well as a seven-power magnifying glass to read microfilm records by hand. At the front of the sealed chamber is the “Language Integrator”, a machine for teaching those who open the crypt to speak English.
The crypt’s inventory includes artifacts ranging from the useful (a typewriter, radio, cash register, and calculator) to the bizarre (dental floss, plastic Donald Duck and Lone Ranger toys, the contents of a woman’s purse, and a specially sealed bottle of Budweiser beer). The crypt chamber when completed looked like a cell in an Egyptian pyramid, with artifacts on the shelves and floor.
On May 25, 1940, Jacobs and Peters sealed the crypt in a solemn ceremony. They welded the door closed and fused a plaque on it with an elaborate message written by Jacobs. Postmaster General James A. Farley represented the federal government on the occasion. The last items placed in the vault were steel press plates from the Atlanta Journal, in which the reports on the Second World War (1941-45) predominated, as well as a voice recording of Jacobs. Addressing the residents of 8113, he said: “The world is committed to burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.”
After the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, the crypt mission seemed even more unlikely. National media organizations continued to visit the crypt every decade, but by 1970 it had been all but forgotten. In 1990, on the fiftieth anniversary of the sealing of the crypt, the International Time Capsule Society was established at Oglethorpe University. The company studies the variety of time capsule projects around the world. The crypt with its stainless steel door regained prominence during the millennium celebrations from 1999 to 2001 and was featured on national television and was covered by national newspapers.