Think Inside the Box: What Time Capsules Reveal About Right Now Think Inside the Box: What Time Capsules Reveal About Right Now

Think Inside the Box: What Time Capsules Reveal About Right Now

by Matt Novak Liz Mamont

December 9, 2011

Thanks to the American bicentennial, 1976 was a banner year for time capsules. Los Angeles buried a pet rock, panty hose, a skateboard, a dress worn by Cher, and Jerry West’s Lakers jersey. Seward, Nebraska, possibly inspired by the 1957 Tulsa time capsule, filled a vault with a yellow Chevrolet Vega coupe and more than 10,000 other items. A capsule buried by the people of Crystal Lake, Illinois, contains a $1,000 government bond, which awaits the people of 2076.

On July 4, 1976, President Ford attended a sealing ceremony in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for the national bicentennial time capsule. The capsule was supposed

to contain the signatures of more than 22 million Americans, but the signature book was stolen from an unattended van at the ceremony. And so the capsule was sealed without the signatures.

This minor defeat seems to sum up the early 1970s experience. Still mourning the assassinations of many important political figures in the late 1960s and still embroiled in the Vietnam War, the nation was uneasy about its future. Manufacturing jobs were disappearing and crime was rising, which brought out the more apocalyptic elements of the national psyche. Consequently, the predictions were often an odd mix of general pessimism about the present and naive optimism that better days were ahead. The ARCO oil company got into the bicentennial festivities by compiling predictions from average Americans about what the world of 2076 might look like. “We have always been a nation more interested in the promise of the future than in the events of the past,” begins an ad that ran in newspapers across the country asking for submissions. “Somehow, the events of the past few years have made us doubt ourselves and our future.”

At the time, it was popular to include children’s letters in time capsules. Sumner, Iowa, buried a capsule in 1977 (the bicentennial celebrations apparently bled over into the following year) that included kids’ predictions about the world of 2077. The letters share a kind of technological idealism—that things will indeed be improved through Jetsons-style automation—but are rooted in the idea that such innovations are necessary because humankind will have deeply damaged the environment. Fourth-grader Bobby Howard begins his letter by explaining the push-button utopia that awaits us in 2077: “You might have rockets on your back or you might have a robot for a maid, and you can just sit in your chair and push a button that is built in the chair to turn on the wall TV or the tabletop one. All you have to do is take one pill a day and you don’t have to eat anything else because that has all the energy you need.”

Little Bobby goes on to explain that his small town in Iowa has been renamed Bubble Station 370, and it’s connected to other bubble-covered towns by Bubble Number 365, a highway. “The bubbles are to protect the people from radiation because since we polluted the air so badly,” he writes, “we slowly ate up the atmosphere and radiation in full force hit the earth, killing millions of people all over the earth until we finally found it was radiation and told people to get underground about 20 feet.”

Bobby—er, Bob—is probably in his mid-40s today. Whether he still lives in Iowa or not, it’s safe to say he doesn’t navigate bubble-covered highways. Chances are, though, he drives a car that runs on fossil fuels.

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Think Inside the Box: What Time Capsules Reveal About Right Now