On an early spring day in March, I drove 800 miles, from Brooklyn to Atlanta, to see a room I knew I could never enter. In the basement of Oglethorpe University’s Phoebe Hearst Hall lies a locked room—20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 10 feet high—that’s been closed for more than 80 years. The Crypt of Civilization, as it’s known, was sealed on May 28, 1940, and inside are artifacts—Artie Shaw records, a plastic Donald Duck, and a bottle of Budweiser, among myriad other items—that attempt to tell the history of human civilization. Hundreds of books on microfilm—on law and history, botany and ornithology, the Boy Scouts and Freemasonry—lie in stainless steel tubes. There are voice recordings of Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, and a champion hog caller, along with a device designed to teach the English language to future societies. They may very well need it: if all goes according to plan, the Crypt of Civilization will not be opened until the year 8113.
The man behind the crypt was Thornwell Jacobs (1877–1956), president of Oglethorpe University from 1915 to 1943. Inspired by Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Jacobs conceived of a sealed chamber that could provide a snapshot of early-20th-century culture for the future. After he published the idea in Scientific American in 1936, the Westinghouse Company built an early version for its pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The name “time capsule” stuck, and soon, others of its kind followed.
Why 8113? There’s a short answer, and a more complicated one. Jacobs pointed to 4241 BCE, then understood to be the year the Egyptian calendar was established. That was 6,177 years before 1936, so he added another 6,177 years to reach 8113. The longer answer, though, has to do with Oglethorpe’s history as a university, Jacobs’s history as an individual, and how we think of history itself.
Oglethorpe was founded in 1835 in Midway, just outside of Milledgeville, then the capital of Georgia. Unable to sustain itself during the Civil War, it closed in 1862, then reopened in Atlanta in 1870, but failed again just two years later. Its current incarnation in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven is due mainly to Jacobs, who rebuilt the university in 1913. In an Atlanta Constitution article, Jacobs wrote that the men behind its rebirth were “determined to build a new life on a ruined life; to make the future nobler than the past; to make the past appear a troubled dream.” Jacobs’s conflicted attitude about the past—a celebration of the classical world and ancient history, a dismissal of the South’s postwar years as nothing more than a troubled dream—seemed to inform much of his work on the crypt.
I met with the university’s library director and crypt keeper, Eli Arnold, who explained to me how the project fit in with Jacobs’s larger scheme to rebuild the university. “Everything he did was to get Oglethorpe publicity,” Arnold told me. “We would give honorary degrees out like they were candy—like 10 or 15 a year,” bestowing them on the likes of Amelia Earhart, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson. “All these people would get Oglethorpe in the news, and Thornwell brought them here to campus.” Gesturing to the steel door, Arnold continued: “So this was also to do that … Eighty years later, this is still one of the biggest drivers to our website.”
Before Jacobs’s idea launched the modern obsession with time capsules, cornerstones were laid to mark a building’s foundation, but they were not meant to be dug up. The revelation of Tutankhamun’s tomb—a private burial crypt never meant to be unearthed, let alone displayed—gave Jacobs the idea of the buried past, the possibility that you could, at some later date, return to a moment in history with surprise and wonder. Time capsules’ subsequent popularity, perhaps, speaks to a fundamental preoccupation with the anxiety that future generations may not remember us at all, and so we desire something enduring that will tell them who we were and what mattered to us.
Most time capsules are meant to be sealed for 10, 50, or perhaps 100 years—nothing like the shelf life intended for the Crypt of Civilization. Jacobs hired Thomas Kimmwood Peters, a photographer and the inventor of an early microfilm device, to serve as its archivist and to assemble its contents, a project that would take three years. Jacobs solicited donations from corporations, publishers, and filmmakers to create, as the text on the plaque welded to the sealed door proclaims, a memorial to “the civilization which existed in the United States and in the world at large during the first half of the twentieth century.” As Peters explained to one potential donor in a typical letter, “We are gathering together here from all parts of Europe and America a complete record of all of our civilization today.” This comment reveals the blind spots and biases of the time, indicating which countries Peters deemed representative of “civilization.” Moreover, at least three of the books in the archive were provided by the Eugenics Publishing Company; in a letter to the company’s president, Peters wrote that this contribution “constitutes one of the most important parts of the Crypt material.”
Jacobs himself held shockingly dismal racial attitudes. “It is almost a sure bet,” he proclaimed in a recorded message placed inside the crypt, “that, if nothing is done about it, the United States will, in a few centuries, become a nation of quadroons ruled by an upper class of Jewish blood. … With the single exception of science which is progressing magnificently, all the balance of our civilization—morals, politics, literature, painting, sculpture—seem to be retrograding and, as I prophesied 20 years ago, we are face to face with another world war.”
Oglethorpe doesn’t shy away from these issues; when Arnold discusses the crypt in his classes, he brings up Jacobs’s racism. His students understand that history is constantly subject to debate and revision, that nothing can ever truly be kept under lock and key, unchanged forever. “This is Thornwell’s idea,” Arnold said of the crypt, “and he was an upper-middle-class academic: this is his idea of the world. Which means it’s more the crypt of Thornwell Jacobs, rather than of all civilization.”
Though it may have been a publicity stunt, the crypt was a hedge against a world Jacobs saw in decline, a way of preserving what he deemed essential in the culture against what he saw as its impending destruction. Curiously, though, the plaque on the door speaks less to the permanence of the crypt and more to its vulnerability. It reads,
We depend upon the laws of the county of DeKalb, the state of Georgia and the government of the United States, and of their heirs, assigns and successors, and upon the sense of sportsmanship of posterity for the continued preservation of this vault until the year 8113 at which time we direct that it shall be opened by authorities representing the above governmental agencies and the administration of Oglethorpe University. Until that time, we beg of all persons that this sealed door and the contents of the crypt within may remain inviolate.
It is a statement filled with pleas, speaking to its own fragility. A recognition that even the most final of all gestures is subject to the whims of time.
Now, less than 100 years after being sealed, the crypt may be in peril. When I asked Arnold whether he could imagine its being opened in his lifetime, he quickly said yes. “Space is at a premium at Oglethorpe,” he said, “as with so many colleges our size,” and the crypt, emptied out, could provide valuable space. Plus, he wondered, if we already know what’s inside, and we know in detail how it was built, do we still need the crypt itself? Part of the allure of a time capsule is that we don’t know what’s inside. The act of opening it is what offers wonder and awe.
But despite the best-laid plans of academics and university presidents, randomness and chance always leave their mark for posterity. If Jacobs imagined that sealing the crypt would be the final gesture, he was proved wrong almost immediately. A few years after its installation, someone etched his name on the steel door: Robert Heed, 1944, ’ello folks. This bit of graffiti is a reminder that history is messy and never static, and that nothing can really exist in a pristine state forever. Jacobs and Peters didn’t intend it, but Robert Heed, whoever he was, is part of the Crypt of Civilization and the human story it tells.
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