A Moment in Time

Source: This essay originally appeared at www.peacethroughunderstanding.org on September 23, 2003

A Moment in Time

by David Oats, October 16, 2003

Stop for a moment.

Today marks a special moment in time. The dawn brought the autumnal equinox - the moment the earth passes from summer to fall. But to anyone interested in the World's Fairs and their home in Flushing Meadows, it also marks a day of significance and reverence.

65 years ago today, September 23,1938, at the exact moment of the autumnal equinox of that year, an ancient Chinese gong tolled solemnly as a group gathered around a spot of earth at Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York - precise location: Latitude 40 degrees 44' 34'' .089 north of the Equator, Longitude 73 degrees 50' 43" .842 west of Greenwhich. They placed a long torpedo-like cylinder in the ground. Around the world, records of that location were sent to point the way to that exact location to whatever beings will inhabit this planet 5,000 years in the future.

Buried 50 feet below that site is a "note in a bottle" - a message to the future. It, and its companion buried a quarter century later, are a message to the future, intended to rest below Flushing Meadows until the year 6939 A.D. They are the Time Capsules.

So it is important to stop - a minute - and reflect on this, the ultimate World's Fair legacy, souvenir, "landfill", monument - "ghost" - to a world five millennia from now.

The whole fascinating story of the Time Capsules, the first serious attempts at preserving the history of our civilization, are available on the nywf64.com website (and a feature story on Time Capsules called "New York's Sacred Meadow" by Knute Berger.)

Briefly, the first capsule buried 65 years ago today, was placed in the ground a few months before the opening of the great 1939-40 New York World's Fair by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. At their pavilion during the Fair, visitors could peer down into the "immortal well" and view the capsule before it was sealed at the end of the fair. One of the millions of visitors to look down that well was a five year old kid from Brooklyn, named Carl Sagan. "It was a day that would influence my life forever", Sagan would say decades later when he became one of the world's most renowned and influential astronomers and 'exo-biologists', popularizing the science of space with TV series such as "Cosmos" and working with NASA to construct the Voyager Message from Earth aboard the spacecraft that is traveling to the ends of the universe with a kind of interstellar "message in a bottle." The Time Capsules of Flushing Meadows helped launch the imagination for that interstellar note to the cosmos - the gleaming terrestrial capsules from the two World's Fairs preserve our message in the Earth.

The key to finding these capsules is a rare and ingenious "Book of Record" that pinpoints its location and position within an inch. Each book tells when to open the capsules using the Gregorian, Jewish, Muslim, Chinese and Shinto calendars and (should none be in use 5,000 years hence) astronomical reckoning. Westinghouse sent copies of the books to the world's great libraries, museums, convents and monasteries. Many have wound up in the hands of lucky fair collectors who, it is hoped, will be as diligent in preserving its memory as the monks in Tibet.

There is even an ingenious key to decipher both the book and the capsule's contents (which are listed on this website) by the head the Bureau of Ethnology at Washington's Smithsonian Institution,Dr. John P. Harrington. He begins his section of The Book of Record with a short verse:

"Our years are like the shadows
That o'er the meadows fall,
Are like the fragile wildflower
That withers by the wall --
A dream, a song, a story,
By others quickly told,
An unremaining glory
Of years that soon get old."

In the back of the Book of Record are some messages written for the capsule by some noted men of 1938. One of them is Dr. Albert Einstein, who looking into the future from that pivotal moment of time notes that "....people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror." While he marvels at the state of modern mid-twentieth century technology, he cautions "the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything." But he concludes his message on this note: "I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority."

At the second fair in 1964-65, Westinghouse wisely decided to bury a second capsule alongside the original to show the incredible changes in the 25-year period between the two New York World's Fairs. (At the fair's opening, President Lyndon Johnson noted, " I understand at the close of this Fair, a Time Capsule will be buried in the ground. Every precaution has been taken to ensure their survival for 5,000 years. But they have neglected one thing: They do not have an advance commitment from Robert Moses, that when the time comes, he will let them dig it up.") The objects inside the capsule alone told the story of a changed - and changing world: a piece of a space capsule; a part of a nuclear reactor; birth control pills; a bikini bathing suit; a credit card - a Beatles record.

N.Y. City Mayor Ed Koch viewing a full scale replica (with cutout window to view contents) of the 1965 Westinghouse Time Capsule with David Oats, co-curator of The Mighty Fair, a retrospective exhibition on the 1964-65 New York World's Fair held at The Flushing Gallery, June-October 1985.
Koch & Time Capsule replica

This time the second capsule was suspended in mid-air high above the Westinghouse pavilion.Visitors at the Fair could sign a book and place their names in the capsule, receiving a badge that said "My name is in the Westinghouse Time Capsule for 5,000 years."

Saturday, October 16,1965, the day before the Fair's closing day, the fall air was crisp and clear. The park's new trees were already turning autumn gold. I had won an essay contest conducted by the Board of Education, Westinghouse and the Fair for a high school student's perspective on the meaning of the capsule. At 15, just beginning to emerge from my "gee-whiz geekdom" phase, I was slowly coming to grips with the Vietnam, Civil Rights, environmental issues that were changing everyone's world ,just as the great fair was about to fade into history. I got to speak at the Time Capsule II lowering ceremony that day at the Westinghouse Pavilion.

It was suddenly an awesome, but oddly quiet moment. I shudder at some of the stuff I may have thought was good in my short talk, but my last sentence still seems to hold up; "I think, maybe, today we are seeing a gleaming vessel going underground, but waiting to someday blast off into an unimaginable future. But unless the theme of this World's Fair is realized - "Peace Through Understanding" - we are only burying this gleaming capsule into the grave of a fallen planet."

David Oats, age 15, of Flushing, speaking at the ceremonies for the lowering of Time Capsule II at the Westinghouse Pavilion at the New York World's Fair on October 16, 1965. General Motors Futurama II in the background. (United Press International photo).

Oats at Capsule lowering

That bittersweet feeling at the Fair's end was palpable - the Fair was indeed, like it's 1939-40 predecessor, on the edge of a new world. Today, a low granite marker sits quiet and still at Flushing Meadows, marking the site where the time capsules are buried. Below the earth, they rest, having waited about 1/100th of their appointed time. The Time Capsules are the simplest of devices: no moving parts, no maintenance, no cost after installation.

And if we forget them from time to time it is because the Time Capsules of Flushing Meadows are working as they should; surviving beyond memory, waiting beyond our dreams.

(left) Officials of the New York Hall of Science, Con Edison, the City and Queens Borough President Claire Schulman (2nd left), Flushing Meadows Park Administrator Estelle Cooper (2nd right) and David Oats at the first signing of a message to the future book to be placed in the 2001 Flushing Meadow Time Capsule. Hundreds signed the book with their own messages which were included with other objects and buried for 100 years below a shaft covered with a specially designed Millennium manhole cover at the entrance to the New York Hall of Science , not far from the original Westinghouse Time Capsules in the park. (right) The scene at the closing of the special manhole cover over the Millennium Time Capsule, January 2001 at the entrance to the Hall of Science. The theme of the Capsule was "Preserving The World For Tomorrow".

Recent Time Capsule Burial Time Capsule Officials

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