Bottling time: Next step in Washington's Time Capsule project is nigh

Knute Berger and a new group of 10-year-old "Keepers" are getting ready to pack a time capsule that won't be opened for 375 years.
Crosscut archive image.

Knute Berger and the children who were convened as keepers of the time capsule

Knute Berger and a new group of 10-year-old "Keepers" are getting ready to pack a time capsule that won't be opened for 375 years.

For 25 years, I’ve been waiting for the future. And it’s almost here. At least, the next step in a long chain of events leading to the year 2389 has arrived.

It all started in 1989, when Washington celebrated the centennial of its statehood. I was hired by the state’s Centennial Commission to come up with a time capsule to commemorate the event and engage the public imagination.

I had researched and written about time capsules, and had noticed a couple of things. For one, they often get lost. People make a big to-do about them, but 50 years later, no one can find them. This actually happened with two Washington time capsules in 1953: One is somewhere underground near the Capitol, unmarked because the Legislature failed to vote for the funding to do so; a companion capsule was lost in a basement for decades.

Another time capsule problem: They only offer small snapshots in time. What if they could be updated to offer more of a panorama? The pace of change and technology is such that after 25 years in the ground, a time capsule is already out of date. What if you could add stuff later without compromising the original capsule? 

I convened a committee to help me figure out the best way to avoid these pitfalls, and here’s what we came up with: A time capsule that wouldn’t be buried, but would “hide” in plain sight, too big to move or ignore, and watched over by people specifically charged with protecting and updating it.

In 1989, I convinced the folks at Westinghouse, then a Hanford contractor, to build a honeycomb of 16 steel time capsules. We then stored them in a giant, locked-data safe in the rotunda of the Capitol with the idea that every 25 years, the safe would be opened and the next capsule in the sequence would be filled. (This year’s will be the first update.)

We recruited a few hundred children — all age 10 and most with birth dates on or near the state’s own November 11 birthday — to be official Keepers of the Capsule. We swore them in at a public ceremony on that day in 1989, and they pledged to return this year to fill the next capsule and swear in a new generation of Keepers. 

We packed the original capsule with stuff that seemed so modern back in ’89, a mix of technology, written and digital documents and small artifacts that included a Nordstrom catalog, some CD-ROM discs (remember Microsoft Bookshelf?), a Centennial banner carried into space by Washington astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, an Indian basket, a silver Boeing 747 pin, a license plate dated “2389” — presumably it can be attached to a fusion-powered flying car. We also included more than 10,000 messages from ordinary Washingtonians who shared their stories, hopes and dreams.

Crosscut archive image.

The original Keepers, all grown up. Credit: Washington State Archives

It was all put on microfilm, thought to be the surest way — short of clay tablets — to store compressed information for 400 years. Technology is tricky, though: Could you play those old Microsoft CD-ROMs on your computer today? What would someone make of a Surface tablet if they found one 375 years from now?

The Secretary of State’s office tried to keep track of the Keepers, tough to do over a quarter-century that saw these people move from grade school to parenthood (especially since the group formed before email, Facebook and smartphones changed the way we find each other). Of the original 300 or so Keepers, about 80 were located. A core group of them is steering the process.

On November 11, 2014, a new generation of Keepers will be sworn in. They will repeat the process in 2039, and so on.

The Keepers are now deciding what to include in the capsules for this go-around. A Kindle loaded with the works of Washington authors? A Seahawks Super Bowl ring? Some DNA samples? What small objects reflect life in our state in 2014 and will be meaningful to people centuries from now?

Potential Keepers are being recruited from the ranks of 10-year-olds born in November. Hopefully, they will capture the state’s diversity. Washingtonians are again being asked to contribute messages — this time, they can submit them via email (message2389@sos.wa.gov), or the old-fashioned way, on paper. Handwritten documents from our era will likely be rare in the future. 

People have asked me from time to time if I wish I could be there in 2389 to see all 16 time capsules opened. The answer is yes, but it doesn’t compare with the privilege of being here at the beginning, watching this process unfold.

This column first appeared in Seattle Magazine.

  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.