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hourglass on the ground

Remembering the Days — Message in a bottle

Remembering the Days - episode 60

Burying a time capsule has been likened to shaking hands with the future. USC students did just that in 1977 when they buried a time capsule on the Horseshoe that was opened in 2001 as part of the university's bicentennial celebration. That same year, another time capsule was buried on the Horseshoe with a scheduled opening of 2051. What's inside? Lots of stuff, including a trove of "letters to the future."


In 1977, NASA launched two rockets to gather information about our solar system and beyond. Each of the Voyager spacecraft carried recordings of music, greetings in dozens of languages and natural sounds from Earth — a sort of message in a celestial bottle sent out to whatever intelligent life might exist in the great beyond of outer space.  

That same year, University of South Carolina students created a far more modest time capsule with a shorter-term goal — communicating to the USC community in 2001, the year of the university’s bicentennial celebration.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at the contents of that 1977 time capsule as well as another larger time capsule that was buried on campus in 2001.

Before I launch into the laundry list of items that were recovered from the 1977 time capsule and the items that were buried in 2001, let’s consider for a moment the idea behind time capsules. Filling a box with artifacts from the present and sequestering it for some future generation to open and ponder has been likened to shaking hands with the future. It’s a way to say, ‘These are the things that are part of our lives and our culture right now — we want you, people of the future — to experience them. And we hope you remember us, too.’

The phrase "time capsule" wasn’t coined until the late 1930s, just before one was buried at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Westinghouse Electric built that cylinder and another one for the 1964 World’s Fair, also in New York, using special metal alloys designed to withstand the elements for thousands of years. Don’t hold your breath for seeing what’s inside — both time capsule cylinders are intended to be opened in the year 6939.

Many historians have been a little skeptical of the actual value of time capsules. They say the artifacts often don’t end up telling future generations very much that they don’t already know about the past. The technological challenge is that most time capsules do not protect the things tucked inside of them. Moisture inevitably seeps in, and delicate items become a soggy mess.  

USC students in 1977 tried to deal with that issue by using an actual burial vault donated by a local company to hold the artifacts they wanted to preserve for the 2001 opening. In no particular order, here are some of the things that were deemed worthy of inclusion in that time capsule:

Videotape copies of the original Star Wars movie; the original Rocky movie with Sylvester Stallone; and Alex Haley’s Roots, all of which came out in 1977 or thereabouts.

Also, a pair of blue jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of topsiders — the unofficial uniform of legions of college students back then. A football signed by the 1977 football team, which finished that season with a 5-7 record. That was Coach Jim Carlen’s third year at Carolina.

Also, computer punch cards like the kind used for class registration and computer science courses back then. A can of spray deodorant, a copy of Playboy magazine and a pack of cigarettes — not sure of the cultural value of those last three items but … whatever.

Speaking of cultural value, the capsule also contained a Farrah Fawcett poster (if you were of a certain age in 1977, you know that poster). There was also an empty bag from a McDonald’s fast food restaurant and a Wham-O Frisbee.

The 1977 capsule was unearthed in October 2001, and I’m not sure what university folks thought about the contents. What I do remember is that the real buzz was focused on what to put into another time capsule that would be buried on Dec. 7, 2001.

Denise Wellman was the head of the Visitor Center, which headed up the 2001 time capsule project that was part of the USC bicentennial celebration. She says the first order of business was to get a device that would preserve items until the capsule’s planned opening in 2051.

Denise Wellman: “And I said, ‘We need this big tube that we can stick in the ground and we will fill it with stuff. And it's got to last for 50 years.’ And our folks down in facilities built this huge cylinder for us.”

The cylinder is actually a long section of very large diameter PVC pipe with an elevated stainless steel tray inside to keep the contents dry if moisture manages to seep in. So what did USC students, faculty, staff and alumni place inside the bicentennial time capsule?

A lot of bicentennial stuff, for sure — banners and brochures, a commemorative calendar and photos of the Horseshoe. Lots of ramdom items, as well — a Hootie and the Blowfish ticket from their Homecoming weekend concert, three books about Carolina that were published during the bicentennial, athletics jerseys from different Gamecock teams, a Gamecock newspaper story about beating Clemson’s football team that year. There are movies, music CDs, and more.

But probably the thing that historians and others will find most interesting when the capsule is opened in 2051 is a large stash of personal letters.

Here’s Denise Wellman.

Denise Wellman:  “We don't have any idea what they say. And some of them are handwritten. Some of them were typed, some of them were in envelopes, some of them were just dropped in. Heaven only knows what they're going to say. It was really a fun day watching people come and just place things into the time capsule. And it was a very personal experience for some of those folks. If I remember right, we actually had a visitor that dropped something in there, too, while they were visiting the campus.  I think there is a a signed football in there and some athletic kind of paraphernalia as well. So probably a pretty flat football in there, if you will.” 

I don’t know about you, but I seriously doubt I’ll be around for the 2051 opening of USC’s bicentennial time capsule. Most every time I walk on the Horseshoe these days, I do pause at a spot on the front lawn of McKissick and look at the granite plaque that marks the spot of the buried capsule. In less than three decades, it will be unearthed. And besides a flat Gamecock football and a bunch of other stuff, there will be a treasure trove of letters from the past, speaking to readers in the future. That’s something to ponder.

And that’s all for this episode. I hope you’ve enjoyed digging up a little bit of the past and peeking into the future. Next time on Remembering the Days, we’re going to take a journey from the early 1800s up to the present, tracing the story of Jewish life at the University of South Carolina. Until then I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.