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A Very Brief History of the Time Capsule

Time capsule stoned cap with letters written on it, fourth of July 1995-2095
RobDun/Shutterstock

From ancient relics stored in an airtight container and buried deep underground to a child’s metal lunchbox filled with childhood memories hidden in a dirt hole in the backyard, time capsules have a place in history.

What Is a Time Capsule?

Wikipedia defines a time capsule as a “historic” cache of goods and information. Time capsules don’t have to be “historic,” since anyone at any time can bury one and dig it up later. The concept is that it is a collection of stuff you intend future people, or your future self, to discover.

It’s been used as a clever way to celebrate cities, classrooms, and more. Elementary-aged kids sometimes participate in adding to a time capsule, just as time capsules have been created and buried to commemorate events like the World’s Fair.

Time capsules have also found themselves in pop culture and can be seen in various movies. So, if you’ve never participated in the burying or digging up of a time capsule, you can get an idea of what they are about in the following pop-culture forums:

Crossroads

A group of high school best friends digs up a photo box in which they each place their “wish” for the future. They buried the box when they were younger, and made a pact to dig it up after they graduated from high school—even if they were no longer close.

Knowing

Mainly a movie about predicting death (without giving out too much of a spoiler), Nicolas Cage plays a father whose child ends up with a strange page of numbers when a school digs up a time capsule students buried fifty years before.

Homestar Runner

For internet junkies, the cartoon Homestar Runner delves into time capsules, and what types of stuff people might put in them. The idea is to show people what the past was like, or what you were like in the past.

The First Time Capsules

While it is very likely time capsules have been around for far longer, the term was first made widely popular (it’s believed) at the World’s Fair in 1939, when “Time Capsule I” was prepared by Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in New York. A second time capsule was created in 1964. Both time capsules were buried under Flushing Meadows in Corona Park, fifty feet deep. They’re not scheduled to be open until the year 6939.

While the capsules from the World’s Fair may be one of the first times in our modern times that people recognized that specific term for these containers of artifacts stowed away beneath the ground, time capsules from centuries ago have been discovered in many parts of the world. In fact, they were often called “Century” Safes.

Here are a few “famous” time capsules:

The Time Capsule in the Massachusetts State House

Believed to be the oldest of all time capsules in the US, it was stored inside the Massachusetts State House by Paul Revere and Samual Adams in 1795. It was meant to commemorate the construction of the building. Once opened in 1855 for cleaning and the addition of more items, it was officially unsealed in 2015 to discover what was inside.

In the collection of artifacts within, there were:

  • Newspapers
  • A collection of 24 coins from the 1650s – 1850s
  • A silver plaque that was inscribed by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.
  • A copper medal of George Washington
  • A Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

The 1876 Century Safe

Before we started calling them time capsules, in 1876, a century safe was filled with artifacts of the 19th century. It was the first of its kind to have an exact date scheduled for reopening. The publisher of New York magazine decided to assemble the iron box of items. It was sealed in 1879.

The safe was opened at a bicentennial festival in 1976, 100 years after it was packed. President Gerald Ford was in attendance at the opening. Among the contents of the box, there was:

  • A photo of President Ulysses S. Grant
  • A collection of signatures
  • A gold pen and inkstand
  • A Book

The Detroit Century Box

The Mayor of Detroit in 1900, William C. Maybury, sealed a copper time capsule as the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1901. The time capsule wouldn’t be opened until December 31 in 2000, presided over by the Mayor that time, Dennis Archer.

An exciting collection of items were found inside, including predictions as to what Detroit would be like by the time the capsule was opened. Aside from residents trying their hand at fortune-telling, the capsule also included dozens of letters from politics and business owners.


Time capsules are an interesting way to preserve the past and have something to look forward to in the future, whether you’re commemorating the year, an event, or your family life. While most time capsules seen on the news are buried by cities and famous people, children and families enjoy hiding time capsules for their future selves or other people who may discover their buried treasures.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »