Thornwell Jacobs (1877–1956), who has been called "the father of the modern time capsule", claims to be the first in modern times to conceive the idea of consciously preserving objects for posterity made by mankind by placing them in a sealed repository.
He was inspired of the idea by the openings of the Egyptian pyramids and tombs of the 1920s and struck by the scarcity of historical information of these ancient civilizations.
Jacobs wished to preserve a "running story" of the customs of human life up to his time of the 1930s popular culture. He wanted to keep alive much of the accumulated knowledge of humankind up to modern times instead of losing much of it as the ancient civilizations had.
Jacobs noted that when the Egyptian calendar was established in 4241 B.C.E. that exactly 6,177 years had passed between that time and 1936 C.E. He then proposed the date of 8113 for the opening of the crypt based on this figure. Most historians agreed that the establishment of the Egyptian calendar, and therefore the first fixed date in history, occurred in the year 4241 B.C.E. Jacobs figured then historians and archaeologists of the distant future could obtain a clear picture of the midpoint of human history.
Jacobs’ idea for the Crypt of Civilization fascinated America and was duplicated by others. In the mid 1930s George Edward Pendray, a public relations executive for Westinghouse Electric Company, was given an assignment by its president to come up with a promotional event for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Pendray, also an amateur rocketeer, came up with the idea to bury deep in the ground a "time capsule" of a sealed rocket shaped vessel made of a special alloy metal called cupaloy. The Westinghouse time capsule was to be a seven foot long rocket shaped metal exterior tube with small articles put inside a plexiglass inner tube. Pendray’s project was originally called a "time bomb" but was later changed to time capsule — a term Pendray coined. Pendray’s time capsule is not to be opened for 5,000 years, whereas Jacobs' Crypt of Civilization is to be opened in just over 6,000 years.
The Crypt of Civilization chamber lies on Appalachian granite bedrock in the foundation of Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall on the lower level, a collegiate Gothic granite building at Oglethorpe University. The room at Phoebe Hearst Hall had previously been a swimming pool. The room area was remodeled from 1937 to 1940 with the walls lined with enamel plates embedded in pitch.
The Crypt room is 20 feet (6 m) long, 10 feet (3 m) high and 10 feet (3 m) wide. The chamber is under a stone roof seven feet thick and it lies over a two-foot stone floor. It is sealed with a stainless steel door welded in place.
The National Bureau of Standards, Washington, D.C., gave professional and technical advice for the artifacts and construction. The bureau also recommended how they should be stored. Many of the artifacts were stored in stainless steel receptacles lined with glass filled with an inert gas to prevent aging of the items — a concept later carried over to the Westinghouse Time Capsules. The chamber resembles a cell of an Egyptian pyramid with artifacts on shelves and the floor.
Many of the artifacts for the Crypt of Civilization were donated. Among the contributors were King Gustav V of Sweden and Eastman Kodak. There were amateur suggesters that 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.\"
Peters’ staff of students placed microfilm on cellulose acetate film in airtight receptacles. A backup system of this microfilm was done with metal film. The microfilms contain more than 800 classic works of literature, including the Koran, the Bible, Homer's Iliad, and Dante's Inferno. There are approximately 640,000 pages included. An original copy of the script for Gone With the Wind was donated by David O. Selznik, a producer.
Voice recordings were included in the Crypt of Civilization of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Franklin Roosevelt. Unusual sound clips were also included such as the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller.
Jacobs addressed the people of 8113 by saying, The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.
Peters placed electric microreaders and projectors in the vault to be sure the openers of the future could see and hear these recordings. He even provided a generator operated by a windmill to drive the apparatus, as well as a seven-power magnifier to read the microfilm records by hand. He did this in the event that our form of electricity was not in use by 8113 C.E. Peters even included some current day scientific instruments.
Some unusual artifacts included are seed samples, dental floss, the contents of a woman's purse, some Artie Shaw records, an electric toaster, a pacifier, a specially sealed bottle of Budweiser beer, a typewriter, a radio, a cash register, an adding machine, a set of Lincoln Logs, and plastic toys of Donald Duck, the Lone Ranger, and a Negro doll.
Some of the last items placed in the Crypt of Civilization were steel plates of the Atlanta Journal newspaper in which there were reports on World War II.
To promote the Crypt of Civilization Jacobs spoke on nationwide radio on NBC in New York City in 1937. An outdoor ceremony on the Oglethorpe University campus was done in May of 1938. David Sarnoff of Radio Corporation of America dedicated the crypt's stainless steel door then. It was to be sealed closed permanently in 1940. Peters included in the crypt segments of Paramount newsreel films of this occasion. He had made a film about the Crypt of Civilization called The Stream of Knowledge (1938).
On May 25, 1940, Jacobs and Peters sealed the crypt in a solemn ceremony that was broadcast by Atlanta's WSB radio . Some notables present at the ceremony were Dr. Amos Ettinger, Dr. M. D. Collins, Mayor William B. Hartsfield, Ivan Allen, Clark Howell, Governor Eurith D. Rivers, and Postmaster General James A. Farley.
They welded the door shut and fused onto it a plaque with a Message to the Generations of 8113 from Jacobs.
This Crypt contains memorials of the civilization which existed in the United States and the world at large during the first half of the twentieth century. In receptacles of stainless steel, in which the air has been replaced by inert gasses, are encyclopedias, histories, scientific works, special editions of newspapers, travelogues, travel talks, cinema reels, models, phonograph records, and similar materials from which an idea of the state and nature of the civilization which existed from 1900 to 1950 can be ascertained. No jewels or precious metals are included.
We depend upon the laws of the county of DeKalb, the State of Georgia, and the government of the United States and their heirs, assigns, and successors, and upon the sense of sportsmanship of posterity for the continued preservation of this vault until the year 8113, at which time we direct that it shall be opened by authorities representing the above governmental agencies and the administration of Oglethorpe University. Until that time we beg of all persons that this door and the contents of the crypt within may remain inviolate.
Peters included in the front of the sealed chamber a machine to teach those who open the crypt how to speak English, which is called a "Language Integrator" — another concept carried over to the Westinghouse Time Capsules.
Jacobs wrote in his diary April 1937,
We have been in Time . . . Reader's Digest, Walter Winchell's radio column ... and in newspapers from London to Australia.''
Over the years there have been numerous retrospectives on the Crypt of Civilization by the Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CNN, National Public Radio, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, New York Times and others. Thornwell Jacobs is quoted as saying, it is our archaeological duty to keep the memory of mankind alive.
After the sealing of the crypt's stainless steel door in 1940 the media organizations continued to visit the crypt every decade. By 1970 however, it had been virtually forgotten.
The International Time Capsule Society was formed at Oglethorpe University in 1990 on the fiftieth anniversary of the sealing of the Crypt of Civilization. It studies the variety of "time capsule" done worldwide.
The Crypt of Civilization regained prominence during the millennium observances from 1999 to 2001. It was featured on television and covered by newspapers.