Group takes time to protect capsules Many are lost after being buried

August 18, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA -- Stashing time capsules seems like a good idea to the history-conscious, but for years the practice has been afflicted with fundamental flaws: The things get lost. Or stolen. Or otherwise disconnected from posterity.

Take the Kingsley Dam time capsule. In 1941, it was buried as part of the dedication ceremonies on Lake McConaughy in Nebraska. The copper capsule was lowered into a casing 100 feet inside the 162-foot-tall, 3-mile-long dam. The plan was to open it 100 years later.

This year, when officials wanted to display the capsule during a ceremony marking the dam's 50-year anniversary -- you guessed it -- they couldn't find it. A plaque detailing its location supposedly was sent to the state capitol for safekeeping, but nobody knows what happened to the plaque.

In Lincoln, Robert Ripley, architect of the capitol, said recently, 00 "I've never seen the plaque. It's nowhere in the building that I've come across in my 10-plus years here."

Such stories are as common as the capsules themselves.

Now help has come from the International Time Capsule Society, headquartered here at Oglethorpe University, site of the greatest of all time capsules, according to the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records.

The Crypt of Civilization's Contents, which is the size of a swimming pool, includes 640,000 pages of microfilmed material, hundreds of newsreels and recordings, a bottle of beer and a Donald Duck doll. Guinness cites the capsule, sealed May 28, 1940, as "the first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth."

With that endorsement, it is no wonder that the society would be based here and geared to save other capsule-keepers from failure. And not a year too soon, since time capsules are expected to surge in number as a new century approaches and masses of people yearn to mark the passing of this one.

Recently, several of the society's founding members met on the Oglethorpe campus to lay out a strategy for making and keeping capsules and to announce the "10 Most Wanted Time Capsules." (Experts believe that many more of the world's estimated 10,000 capsules are lost.)

By listing these "missing" capsules, the society intends to demonstrate what can go wrong.

"We hope others will learn from these mistakes and ensure that their messages will get to their destinations," said Knute "Skip" Berger, executive director of the state of Washington's Centennial Time Capsule project.

In addition to the Nebraska dam capsule, these made the list:

* The Bicentennial Wagon Train capsule in Valley Forge, Pa. It was supposed to contain 22 million Americans' signatures and be sealed July 4, 1976. But when President Gerald R. Ford arrived for the ceremony, somebody stole the capsule from an unattended van.

* Seventeen capsules assembled by Corona, Calif., high school students dating to the 1930s. In 1986, Corona did a whole lot of digging but found nothing. The other day, Bill Workman, assistant city manager, said, "We're just not sure what happened."

* The M*A*S*H capsule. Buried in a 1983 secret ceremony by cast members of the irreverent television show, it contains props and costumes. The Hollywood parking lot where it was interred has been built upon, so it could be under a building.

Finding a lost capsule can be difficult. In Nebraska, officials are using metal detectors and photographs of the original ceremony to try to find the burial site of the capsule at the Lake McConaughy dam.

At Oglethorpe, officials are taking no chances of losing their capsule. Ensconced under the granite Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall, the huge crypt's stainless steel art deco door stands gleaming and waiting.

The capsule is not supposed to be opened for 6,000 years. The spot can be found by consulting a brass disk atop another building. During the recent meeting, a National Geodetic Survey adviser inspected the disk and pronounced it sound.

Society members are aware that skeptics think they are dabbling in frivolity. But they insist theirs is a serious effort -- one as ancient as time itself.

Paul Hudson, a founding member and also a history instructor and registrar at Oglethorpe, said, "We're preserving civilization so people can know what it was like. All we really know about the Egyptians is what we found in King Tut's tomb."

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