When building a time capsule in 1957, scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston didn’t rely on a copper or wood box.
Instead, they built a cylindrical time capsule made of glass, strong enough to withstand the elements for a minimum of 1,000 years.
In January, during the initial construction phase of the MIT.nano building, crews from the school’s Department of Facilities stumbled upon the glass canister pronged into a pipe in the ground.
After consulting with Deborah Douglas, MIT’s curator of collections, the school figured out that the capsule was placed at the site 58 years ago, just days before a dedication ceremony for the Compton Laboratories — or Building 26 — which had opened that year.
The glass object was handblown by the school’s RLE Glass Blowing Lab, according to school officials, and implanted by then-President James R. Killian Jr. and world-renowned professor of electrical engineering Harold “Doc” Edgerton.
A mini-documentary regarding the capsule’s discovery was shared on the Web by the school this week. There was a pause in announcing the rare find because that capsule had to be decontaminated, and Douglas and the school had to digitize photos and video footage from 1957 showing the capsule being constructed and later buried.
Douglas said the most fascinating bit of history about the container isn’t necessarily the items that are tucked neatly inside — it’s how the time capsule itself was built, and how long it was meant to remain underground.
“I have seen metal boxes and I have seen brass cylinders, but this is the first like this I have ever seen,” said Douglas in a telephone interview. “It’s a wonderful gesture, executed MIT-style.”
In the video about the container’s origins, Peter Houk, a technical instructor at MIT’s Glass Lab, which still operates today, tells that glass is the perfect material to use for a time capsule because it’s inert.
“Wood is going to rot, and metal will oxidize and rust, and eventually rust through, and the contents would be destroyed,” he said. “But glass is stable over long-time scales.”
According to a note visible inside, the time capsule should stay secured until 2957, which Douglas called both unusual and ambitious. But Houk said its design could surpass that if it needed to.
“This could last at least 1,000 years. Maybe 2,000 or 3,000 years,” he said in the video.
The cylinder was filled with argon gas before it was sealed airtight by glassblowers with torches. According to the MIT News Service, carbon-14 was added to the container so future scientists could precisely pinpoint the date when it was buried.
Eight time capsules are assumed to be buried around MIT’s campus, but this is likely the only one of its kind.
“It’s very durable and able to withstand extremely high temperatures. And, conversely, extremely cold temperatures,” said Douglas. “Clearly, if this had not been disturbed, it would have lasted a very, very long time.”
MIT hasn’t opened it, and there are unconfirmed plans to bury it again, alongside a new capsule, when the MIT.nano building is complete. For now, it lives behind the scenes at the MIT Museum.