ATLANTA — Stashing time capsules seems a good idea to the history-conscious, but for years the practice has been afflicted with a fundamental flaw: The things get lost. Or stolen. Or otherwise disconnected from posterity.
Take the Kingsley Dam time capsule. In 1941 it was buried as part of dam dedication ceremonies on Lake McConaughy in Nebraska. The copper capsule was carefully lowered into a casing 100 feet inside the 162-foot-high, 3-mile-long dam. The plan was to open it 100 years later.
This year, when officials wanted to display the capsule during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the dam--you guessed it--they couldn't find it. A plaque describing its location supposedly was sent to the state capital for safe-keeping, but nobody knows what happened to the plaque.
In Lincoln, Robert Ripley, architect of Nebraska's Capitol, said recently: "I've never seen the plaque. It's nowhere in the building that I've come across in my 10-plus years here."
Such stories are as common as time capsules themselves.
Comes now help from the International Time Capsule Society, headquartered here at Oglethorpe University, site of the greatest of all time capsules, according to the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records. The swimming-pool-sized Crypt of Civilization contains 640,000 pages of microfilmed material, hundreds of newsreels and recordings, a bottle of beer and a Donald Duck doll.
Guinness cites the capsule, sealed May 28, 1940, as "the first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth."
With that endorsement, it is no wonder the society would be based here and geared to saving other capsule-keepers from failure. And it's not a year too soon. Time capsules are expected to surge in number as a new century approaches and masses of people yearn to mark the passing of this one.
Recently, several of the society's founding members met on the Oglethorpe campus to lay out a strategy for making and keeping capsules, and to name the "10 Most Wanted Time Capsules." (Experts believe that many more of the world's estimated 10,000 capsules are lost.)
By listing these "missing" capsules, the society intends to cite examples of what can go wrong.
"We hope others will learn from these mistakes and ensure that their messages will get to their destinations," said Knute (Skip) Berger, executive director of the state of Washington's Centennial Time Capsule project.
In addition to the Nebraska dam capsule, these others made the list:
--The Bicentennial Wagon Train capsule in Valley Forge, Pa. It was supposed to contain 22 million Americans' signatures and was to be sealed July 4, 1976. When President Gerald R. Ford arrived for the ceremony, somebody had stolen the capsule from an unattended van.
--Seventeen capsules assembled by Corona, Calif., high school students dating back to the 1930s. In 1986, Corona did a whole lot of digging but found nothing. The other day, Bill Workman, assistant city manager, said: "We're just not sure what happened."
--The M*A*S*H capsule. Buried in 1983 in a secret ceremony by members of the cast of the irreverent TV series, it contains props and costumes. The Hollywood parking lot where it was interred has been built upon, so it may be under a building.
Finding a lost capsule can be a heap of trouble. In Nebraska, officials are using metal detectors and photographs taken at the sealing ceremony to search for the burial location of the capsule at the Lake McConaughy dam.
Here at Oglethorpe, officials are taking no chances of losing their capsule. Ensconced under the granite Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall, the stainless-steel, Art Deco door of the huge crypt stands gleaming, waiting.
The capsule is not supposed to be opened for another 6,000 years. It can be located by referring to a brass disk atop another building. During the recent meeting, a National Geodetic Survey adviser braved a blazing sun to inspect the disk, and pronounced it sound.
Society members are aware that skeptics think they are dabbling in frivolity, but they insist theirs is a serious effort--and one as ancient as time itself.
Paul Hudson, a founding member who is a history instructor and registrar at Oglethorpe, said: "We're preserving civilization so people can know what it was like. All we really know about the Egyptians is what we found in King Tut's tomb."