Time Travel: A History (2016)
So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.
—James Joyce (1922)
IN ITS ISSUE of November 1936, Scientific American transported readers into the future:
The time is A.D. 8113. The air channels of the radio-newspaper and world television broadcasting systems have been cleared for an important announcement…a story of international importance and significance.
(Evidently it seemed plausible that the world’s communications channels could be “cleared” on command.)
The television sight-and-sound receivers in every home throughout the world carry the thread of the story. In the Appalachian Mountains near the eastern coast of the North American continent is a crypt that has been sealed since the year A.D. 1936. Carefully its contents have been guarded since that date, and today is the day of the opening. Prominent men from all over the world assemble at the site to witness the breaking of the seal that will disclose to the waiting world the civilization of an ancient and almost forgotten people.
The ancient and almost forgotten people of 1936 America, that is. This puff was headlined “Today—Tomorrow” and written by Thornwell Jacobs, a former minister and advertising man, now president of Oglethorpe University, a Presbyterian college in Atlanta, Georgia. Oglethorpe had been shuttered since the Civil War. Jacobs re-created it in partnership with a suburban land developer. Now he was promoting his idea, “heartily endorsed” by Scientific American, for a Crypt of Civilization, to be waterproofed and sealed in the basement of the administration building on his campus. Jacobs was also a teacher: his course in cosmic history was mandatory for Oglethorpe seniors. Not presuming that Oglethorpe University itself would last forever, he proposed that the crypt should be “deeded in trust to the Federal government, its heirs, assigns, and successors.” Its contents? A thorough record of the era’s “science and civilization.” Certain books, especially encyclopedias, and newspapers preserved in a vacuum or inert gas or on microfilm (“preserved in miniature on motion picture film”). Everyday items such as foods and “even our chewing gum.” Miniature models of automobiles. And: “There should also be included a complete model of the capitol of the United States, which, within a half-dozen centuries, will probably have disappeared completely.”
Time magazine and Reader’s Digest picked up the story, and Walter Winchell touted it in one of his radio broadcasts, and the crypt was completed at a ceremony in May 1940. Something about “burying” appealed to people. David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America declared, “The world is now engaged in burying our civilization forever and here in this crypt we leave it to you.” The United Press reported:
ATLANTA, Ga., May 25—They buried the twentieth century here today.
Mickey Mouse and a bottle of beer, an encyclopedia and a movie-fan magazine were put to rest along with thousands of other objects depicting life as it is known today.
Buried our civilization? Buried the twentieth century? The century kept going, making new stuff, even after 1940. What Jacobs really buried was a collection of knickknacks. There was a set of Lincoln Logs children’s toys, a sheet of aluminum foil, some women’s stockings, model trains, an electric toaster, and phonograph records bearing the voices of Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, King Edward VIII, and other world leaders. Some items bound to cause puzzlement: “1 distributor head cover”; “1 sample of catlinite”; “1 lady’s breast form.” All neatly shelved, a stainless-steel door was welded shut, and so it remains, a quiet room in the basement of what is now called Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall.*1
Imagine how excited the world will be when May 28, 8113, finally arrives.*2
MEANWHILE, the event in Georgia was upstaged by another up north. A public relations man at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Corporation named G. Edward Pendray—a rocket enthusiast and sometime science-fiction writer—trumped the crypt with a swifter and sleeker package for the future, to be plunged into the ground at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—the “World of Tomorrow”—in Flushing, Queens. Instead of a whole room, Westinghouse designed a shiny half-ton torpedo, seven feet long, with an inner glass tube and an outer shell of Cupaloy, a special new alloy of rust-proof hardened copper. Pendray first wanted to call this device a “time bomb,” but that term had a different meaning.
So on second thought he came up with “time capsule.” Time, encapsulated. Time in a capsule. A capsule for all time.
The newspapers waxed enthusiastic. “The famous ‘time capsule,’ ” the New York Times called it, days after it was announced in the summer of 1938. “Its contents will no doubt prove to be distinctly quaint to the scientists of 6939 A.D.*3—as strange, probably, as the furnishings of Tut-ankh-Amen’s tomb seemed to us.” The Tutankhamun reference was apt. The burial chamber of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh had been discovered in 1922, causing a sensation: the royal sarcophagus was intact; the British excavators uncovered precious turquoise, alabaster, lapis lazuli, and preserved flowers that disintegrated upon touch. Inner rooms revealed statuettes, chariots, model boats, and wine jars. The pharaoh’s funerary mask, solid gold and striped with blue glass, became iconic. So did the very idea of a buried past.
Archeology helped people think about the future as well as the past. Cuneiform tablets were turning up in the desert sands, bearing secrets. The Rosetta Stone, another icon, sat at the British Museum, where for decades no one could read its message—a message to the future, people said, but it hadn’t been meant that way. It was for immediate distribution: a decree from king to subjects; pardons and tax rebates. Remember, the ancients had no futurity. They cared less for us than we do for the people of 8113, apparently. Egyptians preserved their treasures and remains for passage to the afterlife, but they weren’t waiting for the future. They had a different place in mind. Whatever their intent, their eventual legatees were archeologists. So when 1930s Americans began interring their own treasures, they quite self-consciously considered themselves to be enacting archeology in reverse. “We are the first generation equipped to perform our archeological duty to the future,” said Thornwell Jacobs.
At the World’s Fair, Westinghouse saved space by enclosing 10 million words on microfilm. (They included instructions on how to make a microfilm reader. The time capsule did not have room for one, so a small microscope had to do.) “THE ENVELOPE FOR A MESSAGE TO THE FUTURE BEGINS ITS EPIC JOURNEY,” said the official Westinghouse Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy,*4 which was printed and distributed to libraries and monasteries for preservation. Written in an odd faux-biblical prose—as if addressing monks of the Middle Ages, rather than historians of the future—the book advertised the achievements of modern technology:
Over wires pour cataracts of invisible electric power, tamed and harnessed to light our homes, cook our food, cool and clean our air, operate the machines of our homes & factories, lighten the burdens of our daily labor, reach out and capture the voices and music of the air, & work a major part of all the complex magic of our day.
We have made metals our slaves, and learned to change their characteristics to our needs. We speak to one another along a network of wires and radiations that enmesh the globe, and hear one another thousands of miles away as clearly as though the distance were only a few feet….
All these things, and the secrets of them, and something about the men of genius of our time and earlier days who helped bring them about, will be found in the Time Capsule.
By way of artifacts, the capsule could carry only a few carefully selected items, including a slide rule, a dollar’s worth of U.S. coins, and a pack of Camel cigarettes. And one piece of headwear:
Believing, as have the people of each age, that our women are the most beautiful, most intelligent, and best groomed of all the ages, we have enclosed in the Time Capsule specimens of modern cosmetics, and one of the singular clothing creations of our time, a woman’s hat.
There was also movie footage—or, as the Book of Record helpfully explained, “pictures that move and speak, imprisoned on ribbons of cellulose coated with silver.”
Several dignitaries were invited to write directly to the people of the future—whoever, whatever, they might be. The dignitaries were grumpy. Thomas Mann informed his distant descendants, “We know now that the idea of the future as a ‘better world’ was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress.” In his message, Albert Einstein chose to characterize twentieth-century humanity this way: “People living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror.” He added hopefully, “I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.”
This first time capsule so-called was not the first time anyone thought to hide away some memorabilia, of course. People, like squirrels, are natural hoarders, collectors, and buriers. In the late nineteenth century, amid the rising consciousness of the future, “centennial” fairs inspired time-capsule-like impulses. In 1876 Anna Diehm, a wealthy New York publisher and Civil War widow, set out leather-bound albums for thousands of visitors to sign at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and then locked them in an iron safe, along with a gold pen used for the signing and photographs of herself and others, and inscribed a message to posterity: “It is the wish of Mrs. Diehm that this safe may remain closed until July 4, 1976, then to be opened by the Chief Magistrate of the United States.”*5 But the Westinghouse time capsule and the Oglethorpe crypt were the first self-conscious attempts at wholesale cultural preservation for the sake of a notional future—reverse archeology. They mark the beginning of what scholars have called the “golden age” of time capsules: the era when people, worldwide and in increasing numbers, have buried in the earth thousands of parcels, ostensibly intended for the information and education of future creatures unknown. In his study Time Capsules: A Cultural History, William E. Jarvis calls them “time-information transfer experiences.” They represent a special version of time travel. They also represent a special kind of foolishness.
THE TIME CAPSULE IS a characteristically twentieth-century invention: a tragicomic time machine. It lacks an engine, goes nowhere, sits and waits. It sends our cultural bits and bobs traveling into the future at snail’s pace. At our pace, that is. They travel through time in parallel with the rest of us, at our standard velocity of one second per second, one day per day. Only we go about our business of living and decaying, while the time capsules try, ostrichlike, to evade entropy.
Builders of time capsules are projecting something forward into the future, but it’s mainly their own imaginations. Like people who buy lottery tickets for the momentary dreams of riches, they get to dream of a time to come when, though long dead, they will be the cynosure of all eyes. “A story of international importance and significance.” “Prominent men from all over the world assemble.” Clear the airwaves: Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, Oglethorpe University, AD 1936, has something to say.
Looking backward, they misconstrue the intentions of their ancestors. They have the disadvantage of hindsight. Cornerstones of new buildings have long been repositories for inscriptions, coins, and relics, and now, when demolition crews stumble across such items, they mistake them for time capsules and summon journalists and museum curators. For example, in January 2015, many news organizations in the United States and Britain reported the “opening” of what they called “the oldest U.S. time capsule,” supposedly left to us by Paul Revere and Sam Adams. This was in fact the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House, dedicated in 1795 at a ceremony attended by Adams, then the governor, along with Revere and William Scollay, a real-estate developer. The cornerstone memorabilia were wrapped in leather, which naturally deteriorated. In 1855 they were found during foundation repairs and reburied, this time in a brass box the size of a small book, with some extra new coins for good luck, and in 2014 State House workers uncovered the box while trying to trace some water damage. This time, it was thought to be a time capsule. The “air channels of the radio-newspaper and world television broadcasting systems” were not cleared, but several reporters showed up and video cameras rolled as museum conservators examined the contents: five newspapers, a handful of coins, the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a dedicatory plaque. From these items what could be inferred? The Associated Press interpreted them this way:
Early residents of Boston valued a robust press as much as their history and currency if the contents of a time capsule dating back to the years just after the Revolutionary War are any guide.
“How cool is that?” one of the archivists was quoted as saying. Not very. The correspondent for Boston.com, Luke O’Neil, injected a rare note of skepticism: “Behold these great wonders from the past! today’s press is proclaiming, a printed broadsheet newspaper and a currency made out of metal.” These items had nothing to tell us about Paul Revere or Sam Adams or the life and furniture of post-Revolutionary Boston, nor were they ever meant to. The curators decided to seal them up with plaster once again.
Cornerstone deposits are almost as old as cornerstones. They were not messages to people of the future but votive offerings, a form of magic or sacred ritual. Coins dropped in fountains and wishing wells are votive offerings. Neolithic people entombed axe hoards and clay figurines, Mesopotamians hid amulets in the foundations of Sargon’s palace, and early Christians cast tokens and talismans into rivers and buried them in church walls. They believed in magic. So, evidently, do we.
When did eternity, or heaven—the afterlife outside of time—give way to the future? Not all at once. For a while they coexisted. In 1897, the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, five plasterers completing the new National Gallery of British Art on the site of the old Millbank Prison penciled a message inside a wall:
This was placed here on the fourth of June, 1897 Jubilee Year, by the Plasterers working on the Job hoping when this is Found that the Plasterers Association may be still Flourishing. Please let us Know in the Other World when you get this, so as we can drink your Health.
It was found in 1985 when the Tate Britain (as it had become) did some remodeling. The message remains, preserved on film, in the gallery’s archive.
If time capsulists are enacting reverse archeology, they are also engaging in reverse nostalgia. That feeling of sweet longing for past times—with some mental readjustment, we can feel it for our own time, without having to wait. We can create instant vintage automobiles, for example. In 1957, the semicentennial year of Oklahoma statehood, a new Plymouth Belvedere with shiny tail fins was buried in a concrete vault near the statehouse in Tulsa, along with a five-gallon can of gasoline, some Schlitz beer, and some useful trinkets in the glove box. It was to be exhumed fifty years later and awarded to a contest winner. And so it was. But there were better ways to store antique cars. Water seeped in, and what Catherine Johnson, ninety-three years old, and her sister Levada Carney, eighty-eight, received was a rusted shell. Tulsa was undaunted. In 1998 the city laid to rest a Plymouth Prowler, for another fifty years.
The craze has become a business, the “future packaging” industry. Companies offer time capsules in a range of styles, colors, materials, and price points, just as mortuaries market coffins. There are extra charges for engraving and welding. Future Packaging and Preservation promotes Personal Sally, Personal Arnold, Mr. Future, and Mrs. Future cylinders. “Are you on a tight budget? Our Cylindrical Time Capsule style may be the most practical choice. Always in stock, these capsules are made of stainless steel, are pre-polished, pre-marked on the bottom with the phrase ‘Time Capsule.’ ” The Smithsonian Institution offers a list of manufacturers and gives professional tips: argon gas and silica gel are good, PVC and soft solder are bad, and as for electronics, “electronics are a problem.” Of course, the Smithsonian has a related business model. Museums conserve and preserve our valuables and our knickknacks for the future. With a difference, of course: museums are alive in the culture. They don’t hide the best stuff away underground.
Far more time capsules are buried than are ever recovered. Hermetic as these efforts are, “official” records do not exist, but in 1990 a group of time-capsule aficionados organized a so-called International Time Capsule Society, in hopes of creating a registry. The mailing address and website are at Oglethorpe University. In 1999 they estimated that ten thousand capsules had been buried worldwide and nine thousand of those were already “lost”—but lost to whom? Inevitably the information is anecdotal. The society lists a foundation deposit believed to lie under the Blackpool Tower in Lancashire, England, and says that both “remote sensing equipment” and “a clairvoyant” have failed to find it. The town of Lyndon, Vermont, is supposed to have buried an iron box during its centennial celebration in 1891. A hundred years later, Lyndon officials searched the town vault and other sites, in vain. When the television show M*A*S*H ended, its cast members tried to bury some props and costumes in a “time capsule” at the 20th Century Fox parking lot in Hollywood. A construction worker found it almost immediately and tried to give it back to Alan Alda. The time capsulists are trying to use the earth, its basements and graveyards and fens, as a great disorganized filing cabinet, but they have not learned the first law of filing: Most of what is filed never again sees the light of day.
A RESIDENT OF New York City transported a thousand years into the past would not understand a word spoken by the people he encountered. Nor, for that matter, would a resident of London. How can we expect to make ourselves understood to people of the year 6939? Time-capsule creators tend not to worry about linguistic change any more than the science-fiction writers do. But, to their credit, the Westinghouse team did worry about making their time capsule intelligible to the scarcely imaginable recipients of their message. It would be an overstatement to say they solved the problem, but at least they thought about it. They knew that archeologists continued to struggle with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs a century after the lucky breakthrough provided by the Rosetta Stone. Clay tablets and carved stones still surface bearing scripts from lost languages that defy translation—“proto-Elamite” and “Rongorongo” and others that have not even been named.
So the authors of the Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy tucked in “A Key to the English Language,” by Dr. John P. Harrington, ethnologist, Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. It comprised a mouth map (or “Mauth Maep”) to help with pronunciation of the “33 sounds of 1938 English,” a list of the thousand most common English words, and diagrams to convey elements of grammar.
Also enclosed was an enigmatic one-paragraph story, “The Fable of the Northwind and the Sun,” repeated in twenty-five different languages—a little Rosetta Stone to help the archeologists of 6939. An explanatory drawing titled “Tenses” showed a steamship labeled present heading from the leftward city (past) to the rightward city (future).
Any effort of this kind confronts a bootstrap problem. The “Key to the English Language” is written, perforce, in English. It uses printed words to explain pronunciation. It specifies sounds in terms of human anatomy. What will our hypothetical future folk make of this: “English has eight vowels (or sounds whose hemming amounts to mere cavity-shape resonance)”? Or this: “The vowel with highest raised back of the tongue, that is, nearest to the k consonant position, is u; the vowel with the highest raised middle of the tongue, that is, nearest to the y consonant position, is i”? Who knows where their glottises will be, anyway, or whether those will have gone the way of gills?
The Westinghouse authors also imagined that librarians could continually retranslate the book to keep up with linguistic evolution. And why not? We still read Beowulf. They beseeched whomsoever: “We pray you therefore, whoever reads this book, to cherish and preserve it through the ages, and translate it from time to time into new languages that may arise after us, in order that knowledge of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy may be handed down to those for whom it is intended.” They would be glad to know that already, as of the twenty-first century, the book is back in print, copyright having been waived: available for around ten dollars from print-on-demand publishers, for ninety-nine cents in an Amazon Kindle version, and widely free online. On the other hand, libraries, short of space, have been “deaccessioning” their copies. Mine once belonged to Columbia University; later it made its way to a used-book dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Are the librarians forsaking their duty to the future? No, they are fulfilling it, by continually choosing what to keep and what to let go. “We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms,” says Septimus in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, “and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.”
The problem of how to communicate with faraway creatures, physiognomy and language unknown, continues to receive scholarly attention. It arose again when people started sending messages into deep space, in capsules like the Voyager 1 and 2, launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977. These vehicles are space travelers and time travelers, too, their progress measured in light-years. They each bear a copy of the Golden Record, a twelve-inch disk engraved with analog data via the technology, now obsolete, known as “phonograph” (1877-ca. 1987). There are several dozen encoded photographs as well as Sounds of Earth, selected by Carl Sagan and his team and meant to be played at 16⅔ rpm. Just as the Westinghouse time capsule lacked space for a microfilm reader, the Voyager spacecraft could not carry a phonograph record player, but a stylus was thrown in, and the disk is engraved with instructional diagrams. The same conundrum occurs in the context of nuclear-waste disposal: Can we design warning messages to be understood thousands of years hence? Peter C. van Wyck, a communications expert in Canada, described the problem this way: “There is always a kind of tacit assumption that a sign can be made such that it contains instructions for its own interpretation—a film showing how to use a film projector, a map of the mouth to demonstrate pronunciation, recorded instructions for how to assemble and use a stylus and a turntable.” If they can figure it all out—decode the information engraved as microscopic waves in a single long spiral groove on a metal disk a half millimeter thick—they will find diagrams of DNA structure and cell division, photographs of anatomy numbered 1-8 from The World Book Encyclopedia, human sex organs and a diagram of conception, and an Ansel Adams photograph of the Snake River in Wyoming, and they may “hear” greetings spoken in fifty-five languages (“shalom”; “bonjour tout le monde”; “namaste”), sounds of crickets and thunder, a sample of Morse code, and musical selections such as a Bach prelude played by Glenn Gould and a Bulgarian folk song*6 sung by Valya Balkanska. That, anyway, is one message sent to deep space and to the far future.
WHEN PEOPLE MAKE time capsules, they disregard a vital fact of human history. Over the millennia—slowly at first and then with gathering speed—we have evolved a collective methodology for saving information about our lives and times and transmitting that information into the future. We call it, for short, culture.
First came songs, clay pots, drawings on cave walls. Then tablets and scrolls, paintings and books. Knots in alpaca threads, recording Incan calendar data and tax receipts. These are external memory, extensions of our biological selves. Mental prostheses. Then came repositories for the preservation of these items: libraries, monasteries, museums; also theater troupes and orchestras. They may consider their mission to be entertainment or spiritual practice or the celebration of beauty, but meanwhile they transmit our symbolic memory across the generations. We can recognize these institutions of culture as distributed storage and retrieval systems. The machinery is unreliable—disorganized and discontinuous, prone to failures and omissions. They use code. They require deciphering. Then again, whether made of stone, paper, or silicon, the technology of culture has a durability that the biological originals can only dream of. This is how we tell our descendants who we were. By contrast, the recent smattering of time capsules is an oddball sideshow.
The capsulists consider it naïve to rely on such perilous and transient human institutions as museums and libraries—all the more so in our era of chips and clouds. What good will Wikipedia be when the lights go out, or even the Metropolitan Museum of Art? They believe they are taking the long view. Civilizations rise and fall, with an emphasis on fall. From the Bronze Age cultures of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans to the modern civilization in which we live, there was no direct influence—no continuity and no collective memory. These are islands in the ocean of time. So we rely on arrowheads and bones and broken pots found in burial pits. They built their palaces, painted their frescoes, and vanished into obscurity. The darkness drops again. We dig up their remains, but the bits uncovered by archeologists are the accidental bits. In Pompeii it took a cataclysm to freeze vivid tragic tableaus of daily life for our future appreciation. The makers of time capsules prefer not to wait for the sky to pour down ash and pumice.
With the passing millennia, though, humans have developed into something different from the amnesiac creatures who formed those scattered, preliterate settlements. We are well connected information pack rats. Far more mementoes are preserved in museums than in cornerstones. Still more are looked after by coin collectors and random hoarders. The garages of antique automobile collectors are more effective preservers of old cars than buried concrete vaults. Toys? Bottles of old beer? There are specialty museums just for those.
As for knowledge itself, that is our stock in trade. When the Library of Alexandria burned, it was one of a kind. Now there are hundreds of thousands, and they are crammed to overflowing. We have developed a species memory. We leave our marks everywhere. The apocalypse may come—our complacent technocracy foundering amid pandemic or nuclear holocaust or the self-inflicted blighting of the global ecosystem—and when it does, our ruins will be prodigious.
When people fill time capsules they are trying to stop the clock—take stock, freeze the now, arrest the incessant head-over-heels stampede into the future. The past appears fixed, but memory, the fact of it, or the process, is always in motion. That applies to our prosthetic global memory as well as the biological version. When the Library of Congress promises to archive every tweet, does it create a Borgesian paradox in real time or a giant burial chamber in progress?
“BUT IT IS only in ashes that a story endures,” wrote the Genovese poet Eugenio Montale. “Nothing persists except extinguished things.” When the archeologists of the future come to read our legacy in the proverbial ash heap of history, they will not look to the basement crypt at Oglethorpe University or the time capsule buried in the mud of the former Flushing, Queens. Anyway we will be rewriting that legacy till the bitter end. Stanisław Lem imagined this vividly in his postapocalyptic comic novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, published in Poland in 1961. The bathtub serves as yet another time capsule. It is marble, “like a sarcophagus,” in an intricate complex of corridors (designed by Kafka, evidently) deep underground.*7 It is buried, more or less apocalyptically, and a millennium or so later it is excavated by archeologists of the future. In it they find a pair of human skeletons and a handwritten manuscript: “a voice speaking to us across the abyss of centuries, a voice belonging to one of the last inhabitants of the lost land of Ammer-Ka.”
A faux-scholarly introduction by these future archeologists (or “histognostors”) explains the situation. Everyone knows about that turning point in Earth’s history called the Great Collapse: “that catastrophic event which in a matter of weeks totally demolished the cultural achievement of centuries.” What triggered this Great Collapse was a chemical chain reaction that caused the near-instantaneous disintegration, worldwide, of the peculiar material—“whitish, flaccid, a derivative of cellulose, rolled out on cylinders and cut into rectangular sheets”—called “papyr.” Papyr was almost the sole means of recording knowledge: “information of all kinds was impressed on it with a dark tint.” Of course nowadays (the histognostors remind their readers) we have metamnestics and data crystallization, but those modern techniques were unknown to this primitive civilization.
True, there were the beginnings of artificial memory; but these were large, bulky machines, troublesome to operate and maintain, and used only in the most limited, narrow way. They were called “electronic brains,” an exaggeration comprehensible only in the historical perspective.
The world’s economic systems depended utterly on papyr for regulation and control. Education, work, travel, and finance—all were thrown into disarray when the papyr turned ash. “Panic hit the cities; people, deprived of their identity, lost their reason.” After the Great Collapse came the long, dark epoch called the Chaotic. Wandering hordes abandoned the cities. Construction halted (no blueprints). Illiteracy and superstition became universal. “The more complex a civilization,” the archeologists note, “the more vital to its existence is the maintenance of the flow of information; hence the more vulnerable it becomes to any disturbance in that flow.” Now, and for centuries to come, anarchy prevailed.
This far-future cosmic archeological perspective frames the nearer-future narrative, which we are meant to understand was written in the last days of papyr. The narrator himself seems to be a bewildered civilian navigating a paranoid military bureaucracy. We readers, knowing what we know about the sad fate in store for the written word, may smile grimly as clerks stamp index cards “classified,” documents tumble from mail chutes, envelopes shoot through pneumatic tubes, dog-eared folders vanish into metal safes, and paper tape snakes from computers. Of course, we recognize our own world, too.
Rambling deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, the narrator stumbles upon a room full of books: “gray, crumbling” books on dusty, sagging shelves. It is the Library. A balding, shuffling, bespectacled, cross-eyed old man seems to be in charge. He presides over a catalogue of green, pink, and white cards “in no apparent order,” stuffed into “endless rows of drawers, their labels framed in brass.” On one desk the narrator finds an encyclopedia of heavy black volumes, one lying open to “ORIGINAL SIN—the division of the world into Information and Misinformation.” The narrator staggers, dizzy in this darkness broken only by a few naked bulbs. He is overwhelmed by the books’ mildewy stench: “this heavy, nauseating breath of the moldering centuries.” The old librarian keeps offering him dusty volumes: Basic Cryptology; Automated Self-Immolation; “Ah, here is Homo Sapiens As a Corpus Delicti, a splendid work, splendid…” When he finally escapes this paranoid nightmare of a library, he feels as if he has stepped out of a slaughterhouse.
He is aimless and tired. He keeps looking for orders or instructions. They are not forthcoming. “And so my future remained unknown to me,” he muses, “almost as if it hadn’t been written down in any ledger anywhere.” But we know that his terminal bathtub awaits. He is about to become a time capsule.
*1 So named to preserve the memory of William Randolph Hearst’s mother.
*2 Why 8113? Jacobs performed some numerology. He reckoned that 6,117 years had passed since the first year of recorded history, which he decided was 4241 BC, according to the Egyptian priestly calendar. Setting 1936 as a midpoint, he did the math and got 8113. It is common for time-capsule buriers to imagine themselves at “the midpoint” of history.
*3 1939 + 5,000.
*4 Full title: The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy Deemed Capable of Resisting the Effects of Time for Five Thousand Years; Preserving an Account of Universal Achievements, Embedded in the Grounds of the New York World’s Fair, 1939.
*5 Her odd and grandiose wish was granted: she persuaded the Capitol to put the safe in a storeroom under the east steps, and in 1976 the chief magistrate—Gerald R. Ford—was happy to pose for photographers while receiving Mrs. Diehm’s offering.
*6 “Izlel je Delyo Haydutin,” or “Delyo the Hajduk Has Gone Outside.”
*7 “Once again I was walking alone down endless corridors, corridors that continually branched out and converged, corridors with dazzling walls and rows of white, gleaming doors….An endless white labyrinth lay in wait out there, I knew, and an equally endless wandering. The net of corridors, halls and soundproof rooms, each ready to swallow me up…the thought made me break out in a cold sweat.”