Review of Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule

Nick Yablon, Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule. University of Chicago Press, 2019. 407 pp. ISBN: 978-0226574134.

 Historians usually trace the origins of the time capsule to the one that Westinghouse Electric promoted at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. This sleek metal cannister stuffed with human ephemera, weighing eight hundred pounds and resembling a ballistic missile, was lowered into a fifty-foot hole and left for the instruction and delight of the denizens of the year 6939. In his excellent new book, Remembrance of Things Present, historian Nick Yablon reveals that while Westinghouse’s public relations consultant George Pendray may have coined the term time capsule, this was hardly the first “intentional deposit with a preconceived target date” (4). Yablon instead locates the beginnings of this specific tradition—of filling a container with present-day materials and sealing it for a scheduled opening in the future—in the United States Centennial celebrations of 1876. Exploring the creation of numerous such “time vessels” (time capsules avant la lettre) between 1876 and 1938, Remembrance of Things Present is about attempts to take some control over what will be remembered and memorialized about a lived historical moment. Examples of these time vessels offer us a different view of how history might be made.

The notion that nineteenth-century Americans were obsessed with the thought of how future historians would characterize their era is also a theme in Yablon’s terrific first book, Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819–1919 (University of Chicago Press, 2009), which examines the many fictions and fantasies through which Americans imagined their cities and monuments destroyed and decaying in the not-so-distant future. If ruins suggest that time is somehow off-kilter, the “time vessel” indicates what Yablon calls a “crisis of posterity” (16). As Americans approached the end of the nineteenth century, a strong desire to speak to future ages without mediation was coupled with a profound concern about the potential disconnection between a present now and a future then. Those invested in time vessels increasingly worried that gradual progress (social, scientific, and technological) would halt and perhaps reverse—and that future generations would know little or nothing about the past. The Proustian title Remembrance of Things Present therefore conveys a modernist anxiety regarding both the catastrophic course of history and the fragile agency of memory—or in this case, what Yablon calls “prospective memory” (9).

This anxiety can certainly be found in the work of Louis Ehrich, a prominent businessman and art dealer who designed a “century chest” in Colorado Springs in 1901. Ehrich focused on local rather than the national or international circumstances, overseeing a project that directly involved his community; he encouraged his neighbors to contribute photographs and handwritten letters to his vessel. These missives to the twenty-first century supported a philosophy Ehrich called “posteritism,” which, Yablon explains, was “an ethics of posterity” (115). The century chest project encouraged contributors to form an affective bond with, and a sense of duty to, the future. Ehrich, who was also an early proponent of national parks and a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, worried that his contemporaries were rashly promoting their own interests and ignoring the long-term consequences of their actions. His century chest was an attempt not just to speak to the future but to make a better future possible.

As a product of the Gilded Age—a time of a growing divide between rich and poor, when social unrest often seemed to be at the boiling point—time vessels were “transtemporal expressions of hope” that civilization would still be around to protect and eventually open the capsule in the future (296). Yablon traces how the specific purposes of these vessels changed over time. The first vessels in 1876 generally conveyed civic pride and were designed to speak directly to their urban descendants a hundred years later. At the turn of the century, worries that future historians might lack access to accurate data led to a more international focus, and vessels functioned to preserve newspapers, photographs, and guides to the textured reality of life in the year 1900. By the 1930s (the era of the Great Depression), general fears about the potential collapse of civilization led capsule curators to imagine a postapocalyptic future in which those unearthing these vessels might have no knowledge at all of the culture that designed them—even a future in which the capsule could be the sole record of human life in the universe. It may not come as a surprise that the Westinghouse capsule of 1938 left a powerful impression on a young Carl Sagan, who would go on to design the famous golden record of human achievement that accompanied the 1977 Voyager space probes.

Remembrance of Things Present is the result of an impressive amount of research; the book concludes with seventy-seven pages of scholarly endnotes. At the same time, Yablon’s prose is straightforward rather than technical, and while the book will be valuable to professional historians of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States, it should also appeal to a general audience interested in the topic. Furthermore, this work should be recommended to students of American literature. Alongside Yablon’s examinations of actual time capsules are readings of fictional preservation vessels, such as those that appear in Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman (1906), Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), and George Allan England’s Darkness and Dawn (1914). These early examples of science fiction and fantasy are themselves part of a turn-of-the-century culture that was increasingly considering how the future would understand history. Mark Twain, for example, to whom Yablon devotes considerable attention, willed that his manuscript autobiography be sequestered in the University of California’s Bancroft Library for one hundred years after his death in 1910, becoming itself a sort of time capsule. (The first volume was promptly published in 2010.)

Of the tens of thousands of time capsules buried in the United States, Yablon notes, the vast majority have been lost or forgotten. And even when they are preserved and opened on schedule, their contents have generally failed to interest professional historians. Yet while support seems to have gradually disappeared for major capsule projects of national or international significance, the practice has become far more common among individuals and small groups. Digitization has given us more opportunities than ever before to archive the quotidian details of our lives. But as with the archival endeavors of the past, the question is whether the citizens of the future will desire what we choose to save.

John Hay
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 

 

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