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MIT Staff Found a Time Capsule 942 Years Early

Scientists who buried it in 1957 wanted it to be unearthed 1,000 years later.
November 18, 2015, 3:35pm
James R. Killian (left) burying a time capsule with Harold Edgerton (right) in 1957. Image: Courtesy of MIT Museums

A time capsule's intrigue matures with age. Take the case of a space capsule intended for Earth 50,000 years from now, or America's oldest time capsule, which dated back to 1795.

Staff at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a time capsule that was buried in 1957 and intended for the year 2957.

The time capsule was buried by James R. Killian Jr., MIT's tenth president, and Harold "Doc" Edgerton, a professor of electrical engineering, to commemorate the opening of the Compton Laboratories, a center housing a new IBM 704 mainframe computer. The duo intended for the time capsule to be opened 1,000 years after it was buried, and made darn sure it was sealed tightly.

According to an MIT statement, the university used a specially-designed glass cylinder and filled it with argon gas to protect the contents. They also placed a small amount of carbon-14 inside so that if an overenthusiastic human were to break into it, scientists of the future would still be able to determine the date at which the capsule was buried. Carbon-14's presence in materials forms the basis of the radiocarbon dating method developed by physical chemist Willard Libby to date archeological and geological samples.

Construction workers unearthed the capsule—initially thought to be part of the utility system—while preparing to build MIT.nano, a new hub for nanoscale research. On further inspection, MIT staff recognized the time capsule.

Edgerton and Killian left a note instructing people to open the capsule 1,000 years after the burial date. The contents include a letter from Killian, a copy of A Scientist Speaks by Karl T. Compton, a container of synthetic penicillin, new coins from the First National Bank of Boston, and a mug from the Class of 1957.

Though staff at MIT were privy to a "sweet moment," they've scuppered the chances of the class of 2957 naturally finding the relic.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that MIT staff had opened the time capsule; that is incorrect. The capsule was not opened, but MIT staff was able to figure out the contents based on contemporary reports.