10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Remembering the 7 Challenger Astronauts

NASA
NASA

When the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, there were seven astronauts on board whose lives were tragically cut short.

1. Dick Scobee // Commander

Lt. Col. Francis Richard Scobee enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school in 1957. He served as an engine mechanic and took college classes in his spare time, earning a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965, as well as an officer’s commission. He became a pilot the next year and served in Vietnam as a combat aviator. Scobee then became a test pilot and logged 6500 hours flying 45 different types of aircraft. After joining NASA’s astronaut program in 1978, he not only flew the space shuttle, but also instructed pilots on flying the Boeing 747 that carried shuttles to Florida.

Scobee piloted the shuttle Challenger into space on its fifth mission in April 1984; his next assignment was as commander of the Challenger mission in January 1986. Scobee told his family that his second shuttle mission might be his last. An aunt remembered, ''He said he had acquired everything he wanted in life.’’

Scobee achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was survived by his wife and two children. His son, Lieutenant General Richard W. Scobee, is now Chief of Air Force Reserve in Arlington, Virginia and Commander of the Air Force Reserve Command at Georgia's Robins Air Force Base.

2. Michael J. Smith // Pilot

Captain Michael John Smith grew up near an airstrip in Morehead, North Carolina, and never wanted to do anything but fly. (Once, when he was the quarterback of a junior varsity football team, he called a timeout just so he could watch a military airplane pass overhead.) He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 and achieved a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1968. Smith became a pilot in 1969 and served as a flight instructor until he was sent to Vietnam. There, Smith earned numerous medals and citations for two years of combat duty. He then became an instructor. Smith logged 4867 hours of flight time in 28 types of aircraft before becoming part of NASA’s astronaut program in 1980. Smith was assigned as pilot for two shuttle missions in 1986, the first scheduled for January aboard the Challenger. Smith was survived by his wife and three children.

3. Ronald McNair // Mission Specialist

Dr. Ronald Ervin McNair was a high achiever from an early age. He could read before starting school, and in elementary school was inspired by the Soviet Sputnik launch to pursue an education in science. In 1959, when he was 9 years old, McNair challenged the segregated public library in his hometown of Lake City, South Carolina. His brother Carl told the tale to StoryCorps.

McNair’s educational career was littered with honors, and he achieved a Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1976. His specialties were lasers and molecular spectroscopy, knowledge he put to use at Hughes Research Laboratories. When NASA began accepting scientists and test pilots into its astronaut program in the ‘70s, McNair applied and made the 1978 class of astronaut candidates. He flew on the Challenger in 1984, spending seven days in orbit and becoming the second African American (after Guy Bluford) to fly in space. The Challenger launch in 1986 was to be his second as a mission specialist.

McNair was an accomplished saxophone player and held a 5th degree black belt in karate. He was survived by his wife and two children. In addition to several schools, streets, and parks named in his honor, the old public library building in Lake City became the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center in 2011.

4. Ellison Onizuka // Mission Specialist

Colonel Ellison Shoji Onizuka grew up in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in June 1969 from the University of Colorado, and then a master’s degree in December that year. Onizuka immediately joined the Air Force and became an aerospace flight test engineer and then a test pilot. Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978, Onizuka flew on Discovery—the first Department of Defense shuttle mission—in 1985, becoming the first Asian American astronaut to fly in space. In his career, Onizuka logged 1700 hours of flying time and 74 hours in space. The Challenger mission was to be his second space flight.

Onizuka, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, was posthumously promoted to Colonel. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. Among other honors and memorials, the University of Hawaii has held the Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day every year for the past 20 years to promote science education among students in grades four through 12.

5. Judith Resnik // Mission Specialist

Dr. Judith Arlene Resnik, a math whiz who also played classical piano, was valedictorian of the Firestone High School Class of 1966 in Akron, Ohio. After earning a perfect SAT score, Resnik went on to get a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon in 1970 and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She helped to develop radar systems for RCA, worked as a biomedical engineer for the National Institutes of Health, and did product development for Xerox, all before being selected for the astronaut program in 1978. She was recruited by Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, who was working for NASA as a recruiter at the time.

Resnik flew on the space shuttle Discovery in August 1984 and became the second American woman in space (after Sally Ride) as well as the first Jewish American in space. The images from that mission were particularly striking because of Resnik’s long hair floating in microgravity. The Challenger mission was to be her second space flight.

Among other memorials, the lunar crater Borman X on the far side of the moon was renamed Resnik in 1988. Resnik’s family sued the maker of the defective O-rings that caused the Challenger failure, and used the settlement funds to endow scholarships at Firestone High School and three universities.

6. Gregory Jarvis // Payload Specialist

Gregory Bruce Jarvis was an engineer who became an Air Force captain and an astronaut specifically because of his engineering talent. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1967 and a master’s in 1969. Jarvis worked at Raytheon on the SAM-D missile project while completing his studies. He then joined the Air Force and was assigned to research on communications satellites. After an honorable discharge in 1973, Jarvis designed communications satellites for Hughes Aircraft. As an expert in satellite communications, he was selected over 600 other applicants among Hughes employees to be one of two Hughes payload specialists for NASA’s shuttle program in 1984. Jarvis was scheduled for shuttle missions and was bumped twice to make room for celebrity passengers: Utah Senator Jake Garn in March 1985 and Florida Congressman Bill Nelson on January 12, 1986. Jarvis would finally get his chance on the Challenger on January 28.

Jarvis was survived by his wife. In addition to his engineering career, he was an avid outdoorsman and played classical guitar.

7. Christa McAuliffe // Payload Specialist

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan challenged NASA to make the shuttle’s first “citizen passenger” a teacher. The Teacher in Space Project was born, and more than 11,000 teachers applied for the position. Ultimately, Christa McAuliffe was selected.

Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe held a master’s in education and a job as a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. She had also taught American history, English, and various other subjects at the junior high and high school levels over her 15-year teaching career. McAuliffe arranged for a year away from her job and trained with NASA in anticipation of her shuttle mission. She was supposed to deliver two live lessons broadcast to schools across the country, as well as six more lessons that would be distributed around the country after the shuttle landed.

The fact that a teacher was going to space prompted an unprecedented number of schools to watch the Challenger launch on the morning of January 28, 1986.

McAuliffe was survived by her husband and two children. The backup teacher selected for the Teacher in Space project, Barbara Morgan, lobbied NASA to reinstate the Teacher in Space program. In 1998, she was named the first Educator Astronaut under a new program. Morgan finally got to go into space in 2007 on the shuttle Endeavour on a mission to the International Space Station.

All images from NASA // Public Domain

12 Bizarre Moments From Oscar Award Ceremonies Past

La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announces that Moonlight is the real winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar.
La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announces that Moonlight is the real winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The unforgettable 2017 snafu where La La Land was erroneously awarded Moonlight's Best Picture Oscar might very well be the strangest thing to ever happen at the Academy Awards, but it’s definitely not the only one. Gear up for the 92nd Oscars, which will be handed out on February 9, by revisiting 12 other unexpected events from ceremonies past.

1. When Will Rogers didn’t specify which Frank won Best Director.

frank capra
Frank Capra photographed in the 1930s.
Columbia Pictures, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1934, Oscar host Will Rogers revealed the winner of the Best Director award by casually saying “Come up and get it, Frank!” Unfortunately, two Franks had been nominated that night, and Lady for a Day director Frank Capra had nearly reached the open dance floor before he realized the spotlight had spun around to illuminate the real winner, Cavalcade director Frank Lloyd. Capra would bounce back to win Best Director the following year for It Happened One Night, but he took the loss pretty hard at the time.

“I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm,” he wrote in his autobiography. “When I slumped in my chair, I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying.”

2. When Hattie McDaniel became the first black Oscar winner—and needed special permission to attend the ceremony.

When Hattie McDaniel was nominated for her unforgettable performance as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selznick had to call in a favor to get the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub to break its "no blacks" policy and let her attend the ceremony. That favor, however, didn’t secure McDaniel a seat at the table with her fellow cast members. Instead, she sat at a tiny table in the back with her escort and agent, and to trek a fairly lengthy distance to accept her Best Supporting Actress award later that night.

3. When the Oscars ended 20 minutes early and Jerry Lewis had to kill time.

When the final award of the 1959 Oscars ceremony was given out a full 20 minutes early and producers scrambled to figure out how to fill the time, co-host Jerry Lewis was left to his own comedic devices. Standing center stage among a sea of presenters and award winners, Lewis announced that they’d be singing 300 choruses of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” before watching a Three Stooges program to “cheer up the losers.” He then politely hijacked the conductor’s baton and led the orchestra in song until NBC finally cut to a sports review show for the rest of the time.

4. When Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s award for him.

When Marlon Brando was announced as the winner of the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Godfather in 1973, Native American Sacheen Littlefeather refused the award on his behalf and explained that he was boycotting the Oscars to bring attention to the deplorable treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. Her statement was met with a smattering of applause and a chorus of boos, and Brando was criticized for the stunt. It did, however, succeed in drawing attention to the cause, and the trend of politically-charged acceptance speeches has definitely only gained popularity since then.

5. When a streaker snuck onstage behind David Niven.

In 1974, conceptual artist and photographer Robert Opel snuck into the Academy Awards ceremony disguised as a journalist and jogged across the stage in his birthday suit, flashing a peace sign and interrupting co-host David Niven. Niven laughed it off, joking, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen,” before introducing presenter Elizabeth Taylor, who admitted it would be a “pretty hard act to follow.”

6. When Rob Lowe sang with Snow White.

An opening number centered around Snow White singing a rewritten version of “Proud Mary” with her “blind date” Rob Lowe seems like a recipe for confusion at best, and disaster at worst. At the 1989 Oscars, it was both. The long, painful performance baffled the audience, and certain high-profile Hollywood actors—Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, and Julie Andrews, to name a few—even signed a letter to the Academy condemning the program as “an embarrassment.” On top of that, Disney filed a lawsuit against the Academy for not officially licensing Snow White, though they backed down with a simple apology.

7. When Jack Palance’s acceptance speech included push-ups.

A genial Jack Palance ambled up to the podium in 1992 to accept his Best Supporting Actor award for City Slickers and treated the audience to a demonstration of three one-armed push-ups in the middle of his speech. The 72-year-old actor was attempting to illustrate what casting directors sometimes make younger actors go through during auditions, but the septuagenarian’s impressive athletic feat no doubt made a much bigger impression than anything he said.

8. When Tom Hanks outed his former drama teacher, which inspired the 1997 film In & Out.

Tom Hanks accepted his Best Actor award for Philadelphia in 1994 by thanking (among others) his former high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and calling him one of the “finest gay Americans.” Though many people thought Hanks had accidentally outed Farnsworth, Hanks had actually gotten his permission beforehand. Still, the confusion inspired screenwriter Paul Rudnick to create In & Out, a 1997 movie about a closeted teacher (Kevin Kline) whose secret was accidentally disclosed during a former pupil’s (Matt Dillon) acceptance speech.

9. When South Park's creators dressed as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Trey Parker, left, dressed in drag as Jennifer Lopez, and Matt Stone as Gwyneth Paltrow, center, arrive at the 72nd Annual Academy Awards, March 26, 2000 in Los Angeles, CA.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone dressed as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow at the 2000 Oscars.

David McNew, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2000, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone celebrated their Best Original Song nomination (for “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) by showing up to the Oscars clad in iconic ensembles from other red carpets. Parker rocked a recreation of Jennifer Lopez’s Versace dress from the Grammys earlier that year, and Stone glowed in a low-cut, pale pink number that mirrored Gwyneth Paltrow’s from the 1999 Oscars. The pair later admitted that they took LSD right before the event, but they didn’t mention whether or not drugs were involved when they chose their outfits.

10. When John Travolta called Idina Menzel “Adele Dazeem.”

If John Travolta had just stumbled through Idina Menzel’s name during his introduction of her performance of “Let It Go” in 2014, we might have simply let it go. However, he quite clearly enunciated a completely different, fictional name, “Adele Dazeem,” which has cemented itself in the minds of anybody who watched the ceremony and many people who didn’t. Menzel exacted good-natured revenge on Travolta at the 2015 Oscars by calling him “Glom Gazingo.”

11. When the “In Memoriam” segment featured a living woman.

jan chapman in the 2017 oscars in memoriam segment
ABC

The 2017 “In Memoriam” segment should’ve been an especially somber affair. Not only did the slideshow feature both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, but it was backed by Sara Bareilles’s emotional rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” However, it also featured a photo of Australian film producer Jan Chapman—who is still alive—next to the name of costume designer Janet Patterson. Chapman, who worked with Patterson on 1992’s The Last Days of Chez Nous and 1993’s The Piano, said at the time that she was “devastated” by the mistake. “I am alive and well and an active producer,” she told Variety.

12. When La La Land won Best Picture, and then it didn’t.

The “In Memoriam” error could’ve been the wildest Oscars fail for decades to come, but it was unseated later that same night, when presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the wrong winner for Best Picture—and the mistake wasn’t corrected until after the La La Land cast and crew had waltzed onstage, accepted their awards, and delivered heartfelt speeches. Then, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz declared to a rightfully puzzled audience that Moonlight was the real winner, brandishing the correct results card and repeating “This is not a joke.” We’d later find out that Beatty had accidentally been handed a duplicate envelope for “Best Actress,” which Emma Stone had won for La La Land. (Amazingly, this was far from the first or only time the wrong winner had been announced at a major award ceremony.)

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