The “Archaeological Duty” of Thornwell Jacobs:
The Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization Time Capsule
By Dr. Paul Stephen Hudson
More than half a century ago, detailed plans were executed at Oglethorpe University, then on the outskirts of Atlanta, to build an extraordinary time capsule designed to store records for more than six thousand years. Done on an epic scale never before conceived, the result was the Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization, “the first successful attempt to bury a record for any future inhabitants.” 1 The visionary of this improbable quest was Dr. Thornwell Jacobs (1877-1956), who has been called “the father of the modern time capsule.” 2
Jacobs was a remarkable Georgia educator, clergyman, and author. In 1915 in north Atlanta he single-handedly refounded Oglethorpe University. Formerly located near Milledgeville, the antebellum college had perished during the Civil War. Jacobs was to be president of the revived institution for thirty years. 3 While engaged in teaching and research at Oglethorpe, Jacobs was struck by the dearth of information on the ancient civilizations. In November 1936, in Scientific American magazine, he explained at length an idea for preserving contemporary records for posterity. Jacobs wrote of a unique plan to present a “running story” of life and customs, to show the manner of life in 1936, as well as the accumulated knowledge of mankind up until that time. His plan was to preserve consciously for the first time in history a thorough record of civilization, in what he called a “crypt.”
The distant date of 8113 A.D. dramatically proposed for the opening of the crypt was calculated by the first fixed date in history: 4241 B.C., when, most historians agreed, the Egyptian calendar was established. Exactly 6177 years had passed between 4241 B.C. and 1936 A.D., and Jacobs projected the same period of time forward from 1936, thus arriving at the date 8113 A.D. for the crypt’s opening. 4
Thornwell Jacobs’s idea for the Crypt of Civilization immediately inspired public awe and controversy. The Literary Digest, for example, reported in October 1936 that amateur suggesters flooded Oglethorpe with ideas for items to be included, such as “a pair of garters, a can opener [and] a dry martini complete with olive.” 5 Soon afterward the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which was planning a promotional event for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, began a project called the “Time Capsule” and the language gained a new term almost overnight. 6 The Westinghouse Time Capsule, which was to be opened after five thousand years, was made of alloyed metal, torpedo shaped, and about seven feet long. 7
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Jacobs planned remodeling of a massive subterranean chamber, twenty feet long, ten feet wide, and ten feet high. In this room had been a swimming pool, the foundation of which was impervious to water. The floor was raised with concrete with a heavy layer of damp proofing applied. The gallery’s extended granite walls were lined with vitreous porcelain enamel embedded in pitch. The crypt had a two-foot thick stone floor and a stone roof seven feet thick. Jacobs consulted the Bureau of Standards in Washington for technical advice for storing the contents of the crypt. Inside would be sealed stainless steel receptacles with glass linings, filled with the inert gas of nitrogen to prevent oxidation or the aging process. A stainless steel door would seal the crypt.” 8 The entire chamber lay on bedrock Appalachian granite in the foundation of Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall, a collegiate Gothic granite building which Jacobs optimistically reckoned would stand for “two to five thousand years.” 9
Immensely gratified by the amount of interest his crypt project had generated, Jacobs noted in his diary in April 1937, “We have been in Time . . . Reader’s Digest, Walter Winchell’s radio column … and in newspapers from London to Australia.” 10
On an NBC nationwide broadcast, Jacobs related that he had been struck by “the intelligent and sympathetic reception to the plan on the part of the general public.” Articles on the crypt in the New York Times caught the attention of Thomas Kimmwood Peters (1884-1973), an inventor and photographer of versatile experience. Peters had been the only newsreel photographer to film the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He had worked at Karnak and Luxor, Peters was also the inventor of the first microfilm camera using 35 millimeter film to photograph documents. 11 In 1937 Jacobs appointed Peters as archivist of the crypt.
Jacobs and Peters combined efforts to secure the huge stainless steel door, the only outward salient symbol of the Crypt of Civilization. The American Rolling Mill in Middleton, Ohio, furnished the stainless steel for a plaque and the door. Oglethorpe University extended to David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America, an invitation to dedicate the door on May 28, 1938. This caused considerable excitement in Atlanta, and Sarnoff s dedicatory address was broadcast on Atlanta’s WSB. The setting was an open air ceremony on the Oglethorpe campus where the great stainless steel door, veiled by a huge American flag, was the centerpiece. 12 Paramount newsreels filmed the ceremony and anticipation remained high for the crypt’s sealing two years later.
From 1937 to 1940, Peters and a staff of student assistants conducted an ambitious microfilming project. The cellulose acetate base film would be placed in hermetically sealed receptacles. Peters believed, based on the Bureau of Standards testing, that the scientifically stored film would last for six centuries; he took however, as a method of precaution, a duplicate metal film, thin as paper. Inside the crypt are microfilms of the greatest classics, including the Bible, the Koran, the Iliad, and Dante’s Inferno. Producer David O. Selznick donated an original copy of the script of “Gone With the Wind.” 13 There are more than 640,000 pages of microfilm from over eight hundred works on the arts and sciences. 14 Peters also used similar methods for capturing and for storing still and motion pictures. Voice recordings of political leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Roosevelt were included, as were voice recordings of Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller. To view and to hear these picture and sound records, Peters placed in the vault electric machines, microreaders, and projectors. In the event that electricity would not be in use in 8113 A.D., there is in the crypt a generator operated by a windmill to drive the apparatus as well as a seven power magnifier to read the microbook records by hand. The first item one would see upon entering the chamber is a thoughtful precaution-a machine to teach the English language so that the works would be more readily decipherable if found by people of a strange tongue.
Thornwell Jacobs envisioned the crypt as a synoptic compilation and thus aimed for a whole “museum” of not only accumulated formal knowledge of over six thousand years, but also 1930s popular culture. The list of items in the crypt is seemingly endless. 15 All of the items were donated, with contributors as diverse as King Gustav V of Sweden and the Eastman Kodak Company. Some of the more curious items Peters included in the crypt were plastic toys – a Donald Duck, the Lone Ranger, and a Negro doll, as well as a set of Lincoln Logs. Peters also arranged with Anheuser Busch for a specially sealed ampule of Budweiser beer. The chamber of the crypt when finally finished in the spring of 1940, resembled a cell of an Egyptian pyramid, cluttered with artifacts on shelves and on the floor.
The long awaited ceremony for the sealing of the crypt was broadcast by Atlanta’s WSB radio on May 25, 1940. Some of the notables present were Ivan Allen, Dr. Amos Ettinger, Dr. M. D. Collins, Mayor William B. Hartsfield, Clark Howell, Governor Eurith D. Rivers, and Postmaster General James A. Farley. Some of the guests gave short messages that were preserved for the Crypt of Civilization. The impressive ceremony was darkened considerably by the shadow of European military strife. Speaking to the people of 8113 A.D., Dr. Jacobs said “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.” Among the last objects to go into the vault were records of the ceremony and a steel plate from the Atlanta Journal, where themes of war predominated.
The great door of stainless steel was then swung into position on its frame, where it was welded for a future that is uncertain. Mayor Hartsfield mischievously asked: “Suppose if there’s an air raid?” Peters replied that the crypt “was under seven feet of stone now. It would just be deeper buried and better preserved. 16
Oglethorpe University celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Crypt of Civilization in the spring of 1990. As custodian of the crypt, Oglethorpe’s administration continues its stewardship and the challenge of keeping alive the memory of the remarkable Georgia time capsule. Over the past year, there have been numerous retrospectives on the crypt by the Associated Press, NBC, ABC, CNN, National Public Radio, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the New York Times and other publications. As long as there is hope and memory, the stationary crypt will in some way continue to move through time seeking to fulfill, in the words of Thornwell Jacobs, “our archaeological duty.”
1. Guinness Book of World Records (New York, 1990), 228.
2. William E. Jarvis, “Time Capsules,” Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (New York, 1988), 350.
3. See David N. Thomas, “Jacobs, Thornwell,” Dictionary of Georgia Biography, Vol. I (Athens, 1983), 517-19.
4. Scientific American, November 1936, 260-6 1.
5. Literary Digest, October 31, 1936, 19-20.
6. Jarvis, “Time Capsules,” 338.
7. The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy (New York, 1938), 8.
8. Scientific American, November 1936, 26 1.
9. Thornwell Jacobs, Step Down Dr. Jacobs: The Autobiography of an Autocrat (Atlanta, 1945),486.
10. Ibid., 512.
11. Peters, Thomas Kimmwood,” Who’s Who in America With World Notables (Chicago, 1978), 1712.
12. Atlanta Journal, May 28, 1938.
13. Ibid., February 25, 1940.
14. T. K. Peters, “‘I’he Preservation of History in the Crypt of Civilization,” journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (February 1940), 209-10.
15. “The Crypt of Civilization” brochure (n.d.), Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Georgia, 30319, is available upon request.
16. Atlanta Journal, May 26, 1940.