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Time Capsule

By Shamus
on Thursday May 21, 2009
Filed under:


Civilization is about to undergo some calamity. You can see it coming, but you can’t avert it. (Perhaps it’s unavoidable.) Sometime before the end of this century, civilization is going to be blasted back to the stone age, but projections suggest that things will calm down again in 100-200 years. During that time it’s expected that humans will lose nearly everything, technology-wise. We’ll be back to spears and animal skins.

A clever scientist has come up with a very sturdy time capsule. She’s confident that it will:

  1. Survive the apocalypse.
  2. Remain hidden, safe, and airtight until things blow over.
  3. Be found by any surviving humans once the planet returns to normal.
  4. Those that find it will be reasonably interested in using whatever they find inside to better their understanding and aren’t going to ignore it or waste it. (They won’t burn textbooks to keep warm, even if they can’t understand them.)

Let’s assume we’ll retain the abstract “technologies”, like phonetic alphabet. If we have to nail things down, assume that the people who find the capsule will be reasonably intelligent adults with a second-grade education and almost no understanding of what the world was like, pre-disaster. (I’m not going to specify what the disaster is, or people will begin gaming the system and suggesting ways to avert or survive the disaster instead of tackling the proposed question.) Note that while you can be sure a group of literate humans will find this, you can’t be sure they will be able to read and understand your textbook on quantum physics.

You’ve been given the job of filling the time capsule. Assuming the goal of jump-starting technology, what do you put in?

EDIT: Oh. I forgot to give a volume limit, just to keep some smartass from stuffing the entire library of congress inside of a power plant inside of an aircraft carrier and putting it in the “capsule”. The capsule is one cubic meter.

Comments (162)

1 2 3

  1. krellen says:

    A laptop with an intuitively designed GUI that grants access to the terabyte drive therein that holds the contents of Wikipedia.

  2. Bret says:

    A laptop with huge battery capacity, Fallout, blueprints for real world tech that matches up well enough with same, and a solid steel Brotherhood armor helmet.

    Lying to people of the future: Always fun.

  3. Kyte says:

    Building on the previous: A (sturdy!) Kindle-like device (maybe with a touch screen) with a intuitive GUI containing a whole variety of books of various main topics, from math & science to history & art, organized in folders according to level. The device should only allow access to the most elementary books/chapters at first, unlocking more as a certain browsing milestone is reached (for instance, by reaching the end of a chapter covering cinematics a little popup tells you you can now read the chapter on dynamics).
    And of course, damn full of animations and other support material.
    Hyperlinks to popups explaining terms preferred.
    Wikipedia (or a more accurate version of it) could sitting in the background available as reference.

    That should, if not ensure, at least have a good chance of getting the reader interested.

    • Shamus says:

      My previous snark aside, I’m pretty stumped on this one. Electronics seem iffy to me. I doubt modern batteries will still work in 100+ years, no matter what you use to charge them. A battery leak or a blown circuit somewhere and all of the knowledge goes poof.

      If we’re back to spears and skins, I think the most useful info would be basics on farming, crop rotation, weaving, pottery, bronze working, and steel. I’d make sure those were carefully illustrated and printed on durable water-resistant paper. (I want them to last as long as possible and be as widely read as possible even after the capsule is opened.) Then there would be smaller and more compact books on construction, glass blowing, advanced mathematics, sanitation and basic medicine.

      And finally I’d include the higher-tech stuff, both in electronic format (a solar-powered kindle or something) and on some sort of microfilm format that could be read using the included microscope. (The microscope serves double-duty as a functional example of a tech they’ll need.) If the kindle doesn’t make it, at least they’ll have the microfilm.

      In general, I think these nomads aren’t going to have a lot of time to sit around reading about techniques of modern filmmaking until they’re fed, healthy, and clothed.

  4. Mari says:

    I’m sticking with photographs and paintings of current devices. Cars, computers, airplanes, rockets, washing machines, and so on. I leave it to the people of this new civilisation to figure out how to make such devices work as they may conceivably improve significantly on our current designs simply by having a fresh approach. For instance, a photograph of a car may spur them to create a motorized conveyance that runs on a cleaner or more widely available fuel source or perhaps doesn’t utilize the internal combustion engine at all but some entirely new device.

    I believe that technology derives from the infinite imagination of man and an inability to know our limits, a refusal to say “It can’t be done.” To restrict future civilisations to doing things “our way” we’re limiting them and thus killing off potential innovation.

    Besides, building off the shoulders of giants inevitably leads to irresponsibility. When we weren’t the ones who mastered the knowledge we tend to lack the discipline to use said knowledge well. Achievement comes from hard work and future peoples deserve to achieve just as much as we do.

  5. Nihil says:

    No computers, guys. No battery out there is going to survive 200 years of stasis. Other components (such as the HD) are also very likely to fail after such a long period if inactivity.

  6. Derek says:

    You can see it coming, but you can't avert it.

    So, are we to assume that Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are unavailable? What happened to them, that will prevent them from stopping the disaster?

    Assuming no Hollywood heroes are available to save us, I’d put hope and intuition in the box. Oh, and faith and curiosity. Probably honesty and goodness too, to make sure humanity got restarted on the right foot. And a GameBoy.

  7. JohnW says:

    A large, black stone slab, 1 meter deep by 4 meters wide by 9 meters tall. That vibrates faintly, but does nothing else.

  8. illiterate says:

    Business plans for creating a software company and a graphics chipset manufacturer.

    The technology curve is driven by these, right?

  9. Kyte says:

    I was more thinking of having it attached to a battery (a generator even if space permits) and with instructions on how to make more electricity if needed.

  10. Math, agriculture, and science books, starting with the elementary, going up as far as we can fit in the time capsule. Make the early stuff physical books, but switch to digital for the more advanced stuff if space is an issue. They should be ordered in an obvious enough way to get them started (“read this first”).

    But the most important part: detailed information on setting up, maintaining, and running a printing press so that these books can be reproduced and disseminated. Have literature explaining the benefits of widely spreading information and knowledge, as to encourage them.

    The printing press, one of the most valuable inventions in the history of mankind, was only invented a few hundred years ago. If you don’t tell them about it, they might have to wait thousands of years for it to be invented again.

    Now hopefully they can find the time to apply this information. Primitive people had to spend much of their time just managing their own survival.

  11. Kyte says:

    (I HAD been thinking books, but they are so. Freaking. bulky.)

    PS: Bah at the edit timeout.

  12. Merle says:

    Medical textbooks, starting with the basics and moving right on up to the advanced stuff. Clearly labelled.

    A complete copy of Shakespeare’s works.
    If we can assume that this will all somehow be miraculously preserved until they can get to it, I would include a laptop containing the contents of Wikipedia, complete with solar panels and charging instructions.

    A brief explanation of and guide to recreating the Green Revolution, if need be.

    And photographs of the moon landings, with an explanation of their origin. That’s something that humanity should never forget.

  13. Seth says:

    I don’t have anything to add except to say that this same thought experiment is something that an advanced alien civilization would have to think up to try and boot-strap us to their level.

    “Hmm, how can we get them up to quantum computing and basic planet building from the lowly state they are in?”

  14. Daemian Lucifer says:

    My first thought was to include a computer,or just a hard disk.But then,Ive remembered that those things have a life time that is much shorter than 200 years.So paper is the way to go.Id include a text describing in as much detail as possible few of the crucial technologies like steam power,electricity,few medicine formulas(like penicilin),concrete,and maybe gunpowder and atomic energy.

  15. Magnus says:

    No electronics. Theres no point unless they can be reproduced, in which case you need to provide the information required to get them through the equivalent of 1900-2009.

    I’d start with a full copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as various biology, physics and chemistry texts. Also beneficial would be various history books, detailed maps (for comparison post apocalypse) and various sociological information. Also required would be a “rosetta stone” or a given amount of information reproduced in a dozen of the most appropriate written languages (if we are using english resources, then european languages for example.)

    To kickstart a civilization, you need the information required for food and water (desalination, water purification, irrigation, agriculture, fertilizer, livestock management etc.); medicine and health (anatomy, physiology, genetics, antibiotics, diet, aspirin, sanitation, sewerage etc.); power (generators, electricity, fuel extraction-storage-usage etc.); transport (horse training, internal combustion engine); construction (architecture, brick-making, concrete, etc.); metal working (ore extraction, refinement, various usages)

    There is truly so much we take for granted, that took us hundreds of years to accomplish.

  16. Yar Kramer says:

    @JohnW: Would you be able to make it absolutely black, so that it was almost impossible to see its depth? Or if you touched it, giving it a sensation of not actually touching it, as if your fingers had just stopped just short of it? And how impervious-to-all-mortal-weapons-and-cutting-tools are we talking here? ;)

  17. Rutskarn says:

    1.) An in-depth history of Agriculture. This will explain each new advancement in detail, which they can gradually follow up to a certain point (i.e., diesel power). This provides for the rebirth of civilization.

    2.) An equally in-depth history of Metallurgy. This might not be much help, but it’s better than nothing.

    3.) A book on Steam Power.

    4.) A lengthy, simple essay (which I may have to write myself) on what systems of government are best. Hopefully, we can give tyranny a miss and get right to democracy.

    5.) A massive box of glowsticks, assuming they can survive the 200 years without degrading. Why? To give the science caste a pseudo-religious appearance when necessary, building respect for them among the tribe.

    6.) A box of steel tools, the strongest I can find. Hopefully, this will give them a kickstart, although they won’t last forever. Also, they’ll show people how it’s done.

    7.) A glossary, painstakingly defining any “big words” which might exist in the texts.

    That’s all I can think of offhand.

  18. SolkaTruesilver says:

    I’d give them basic hygienic tricks that we learned in 20th century. They will probably mis-understand them as holy scriptures, but I don’t care.

    Some of the basic things we learned in the last 2 centuries that we got wrong in the 20 centuries before that would be great. Also, the basic things regarding preservation of food, navigation, etc…

    I’d like to bump them to Renaissance-level of navigation techniques to get their bearing around the world, which will increase their trade. Medical and Hygiene would have to be as advanced as possible. But I think we can do away with the rest…

    Ohhhh… Maybe give them some other basic tricks regarding the preservation of environment. Over-foresting of Northen Africa led to the desert Sahara in the past 3 millenia and the soil erosion. How about we give them tip to prevent such mistake to happening again? Like… “Only cut 3 trees out of 4”.

    • Shamus says:

      Claire: There was no reason in the world you couldn’t have written your comment without insulting every single religious person in this thread by referring to their deeply-held beliefs as “nonsense”. Moreover, broaching the subject is a great way to threadjack the entire discussion.

      I respect people of all faiths (or of no faith at all) and I’d ask others to do the same. Let’s keep this friendly.

  19. Joel says:

    What concerns me the most is whether or not the people that discover the capsule will be able not only to read the language of the texts, but be able to read at all. At that point, we’d probably want to render critical ideas as pictures and diagrams. Stuff about agriculture and mathematics probably tops my list, as surplus food will allow for the “leisure” time to research more and math is the foundation of a lot of other key ideas. I don’t know. I think the most important thing is ensuring the transmission of the knowledge. If no one can read English anymore, it doesn’t matter if they have a magical Kindle or not.

  20. elias says:

    Meh, they’ll come up with these technologies again eventually. Maybe not for a while, but I probably won’t be around anymore anyway, so it doesn’t really matter to me how long it takes. With that in mind, if I were still gonna put something in a time capsule, it would be more fun to put in something just to screw with their heads. So… how about an iPhone wired up to a hand-crank generator and/or some solar cells?

  21. MissusJ says:

    I know we are only talking about 100-200 years here, but I would like to assume that the projections might be off, and I think a lot of other people here may be assuming this as well. In which case…

    screw paper, it will not last well enough or be durable enough once it is discovered to be of much use. Think on this: what do we have from hundreds of years ago that is still in decent shape today, even with our restorative technology?

    stone. metal. So sure, give some info on what we have and do now. I am with Mari that it might be best to not go into too much detail, so let’s limit it to the most durable of means- make a metal book, paint on stone, whatever. The material alone will limit what information can be imparted.

    I second the moon landings as important to pass on, and I wish we could include something musical as well, but I think my own suggestions may preclude this.

    One other objection to providing much information about high tech, or even comparatively low tech- we do not know how the earth itself has been changed by this catastrophe, so some things may or may not be possible. The new humans will have to make their own way in this new world. All we can tell them is how things were.

    ETA: Of course, we need a couple of languages, even if it is only in one place… a Rosetta Stone for a new age. I heartily second this. How is the record player on the Voyager Probe powered? Could we include something like that?

  22. Robyrt says:

    The #1 thing to put in the Time Capsule is a complete guide to agriculture. Without the stable and sizable society that it provides, you won’t HAVE academics to interpret the rest of your information.

  23. OddlucK says:

    A large bomb, or maybe a small device (powered by the large thousand-year half-life nuclear reactor attached to it, but otherwise unusable–just to quell the “the battery will die” argument) which is programmed randomly on the press of it’s only button either to make a pleasing tone, do nothing, or horribly shock the one pressing the button. I hate future us.

    More seriously, I’m not sure I’d put in much of anything, other than things perhaps to spur their imagination–photographs of planes, trains, and automobiles; a DVD copy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; a small piano and sheet music to Bjork’s greatest hits; 42; a shoe. Let them ponder those things and figure them out on their own.

    Still more seriously, I’d probably just pack in the next progressive step or two in human technology. Give them a bow, a pair of shoes, woven cloth (with a simple, easy to fathom weave–no polyester), some fashioned metal along with a piece of the ore of the same material and a note saying “Heat and bash this to make this” (with picture references so they know which “this” is this), an anvil and a hammer, that sort of thing.

    Really, my goal would be just to spur them a little further along. There’s no reason to try to inundate them with the whole of our knowledge, or even to presume they could (after however much study) begin to replicate what they’ll see in textbooks, especially if we don’t give them the materials to do it. Their advancement, if that is indeed our goal, should either progress naturally or merely be inspired a small amount. It’s the only way to ensure comprehension and implementation.

    Though, I really do hate future us. Let’s bomb ’em!

  24. Factoid says:

    I think probably the most important things to include would be texts on farming, construction techniques, metallurgy and medicine/anatomy.

    Include some chemistry texts that have instructions on how to make simple medicines that help to extend lives. Maybe the first generation to open the capsule won’t be able to synthesize pennicillin, but the second generation probably will.

    I like Shamus’s suggestion about Microfilm, but I think it’s risky. Microfilm has a shelf life. It’s a very LONG shelf life, but the more you expose it to light the more it will degrade over time. Since you won’t be able to rely on working electronics that means they’ll be using sunlight to view the film, which has UV light, which will ruin the film in all but a few months.

    I’d give them information on how to manufacture paper and printing presses as well. That was the tipping point for human society and the single invention that launched humanity into the current cycle of exponential knowledge creation.

  25. Tacoma says:

    You need a rosetta stone that lets them translate a few really common languages into your capsule language. It should include a basic mathematic system to build up from if none of them speak the languages on your rosetta stone.

    The number 1 thing would be history of human development and human activity. Philosophy and ethics. We need to tell them what their world used to be like, how we screwed it up or failed to prevent a natural apocalypse, and advice on how to do it better. We were just normal people living normal lives, not gods of the old world.

    Second, you need some way to make this group you’ve convinced better able to survive and so to flourish. Information on agriculture, medicine, organization, and scientific inquiry. You don’t need to tell them everything, just enough to get them solidly on their way. And with the history showing them what was once possible they have something to work toward.

    I would include maps of the old world and icons for each site with descriptions that should help them scavenge what may be left. A full description of the dangers of various nuclear and chemical sites, sort of a “this is not a place of honor” deal.

    Astronomical charts in sets of 100 year increments out to 1000 years, to account for changes in the Earth’s skies.

    And finally in the space remaining a few “wonder objects” that don’t use electricity, don’t expire, and last for MANY uses. I’m thinking powerful magnets, modern alloy blades, stuff that won’t kill someone with common sense but are useful and even magical. This way the discoverers both know that this is not a hoax and have a means of proving that to others, and also have some treasure for their trouble even if they don’t use any of the information.

  26. Chilango2 says:

    You want to keep things basic, the basic goal should be to jump start them from the stone age to the renaissance, from there, they have been given the tools to figure things out on their own.

    Furthermore, you can’t assume that the humans viewing this are capable of ever reading english or any current language, which means you’d have to create a symbolic language that would be tested to be understood by the vast majority of human beings.

    So you’d want illustrated guides to farming, including crop rotations and the need for fertilizers.

    You’d also want an illustrated guide to basic medicine: basic sanitation methods, the human physiology, the fact germs and viruses as the core spreaders of disease. These two things alone would save uncountable human lives and guarantee a much faster recovery.

    Next, you’d want a basic ‘How to escape the Malthusian trap’ kit: An illustration of a simple steam power engine,a solar power engine, an explanation of electricity, a diagram of a battery, a simple electrical setup, including how wires work as conductors, and a diagram of a transistor that can be made from scratch.

    Next, you’d want to reconnect the world as well, so include diagrams and illustrations of the wheel, wind powered ships that could travel decent distances, the internal combustion engine, a simple all terrain vechile diagram, that sort of thing.

    Last, you’d want core underlying theory: Basic physics, chemistry, a bit about the atom, that sort of thing.

    If you had any room left, the people of the future should know that the people of the past didn’t just work. Include one sample of a major cultural creation from each major culture group.

  27. Sandrinnad says:

    spears & skins, eh?

    is there evidence of ancient tech left (roads, buildings, etc) or has it all been eliminated by the catastrophe?

    in any case: easy-to-follow instructions on the basics of agriculture and land management (including useful tools), textile manufacturing, hygiene and health care (including nutrition), and metallurgy.

    I think that’s about it. As for everything else, why look back? Look forward instead. If they invent it themselves they may do a better job and they will certainly be able to better take into account their current resources (who knows what will/won’t be available after this catastrophe?)

  28. Kevin says:

    Comic books, Playboys, and beer recipes. Culture is led by the geeks, so we have to make sure there are some.

  29. james says:

    Lots of photographs. Photographs of people doing normal, every day things.

    Then some crazy high tech devices like:

    A sharp knife
    A compass
    A gas lighter
    A car battery and solar panel and lightbulb

    Oh, and a map showing the country and all its major cities and where their rubbish dumps are, with fairly obvious instructions to go digging in them. People have been going on about how plastic and metal takes millions of years to decompose, so future us should easily be able to dig up some good stuff to play with.

  30. Rutskarn says:

    Shamus: On that note, I think I’ll include an 8×10 glossy of myself, with “Your God” written in gold lettering.

    Also, a list of my preferred sacrifices and temple rituals. Rutskarn is not a forgiving lord.

  31. Nomar says:

    And again with the electricity. You need to think 20th century, not 21st: microfilm! It’s reasonably robust, durable, and can be read with a microscope, which is a simple mechanical device that requires not electricity, only a good light source. The only full-size reading material you’ll need to include is an IKEA-style instruction booklet on how to use the (also included) microscope to read the microfilm.

  32. Vladius says:

    “Civilization is about to undergo some calamity. You can see it coming, but you can't avert it. (Perhaps it's unavoidable.) Sometime before the end of this century, civilization is going to be blasted back to the stone age, but projections suggest that things will calm down again in 100-200 years. During that time it's expected that humans will lose nearly everything, technology-wise. We'll be back to spears and animal skins.”

    Is that a threat?

  33. Chris says:

    So no-one’s suggested a small model of the Statue of Liberty which, when the red button on its’ base is pressed, screams “You crazy sons of bitches! You blew it up! You blew it all to Hell!”

  34. Jay says:

    I second the idea about using something other than paper.

    Really, plastic or organic things will not be the way to go if you want your contributions to last more than a generation. I like the idea of a book made of metal plates, with modern equipment and engraving it can look nice, get the idea across, and last for a very, very long time.

    Of course that means limiting what you include, and Shamus has clearly defined the targets as being spears and animal skins tech-wise, with the reading skills of a second grader.

    The most important thing then would be to boost them from hunter/gatherer to a more stable lifestyle that would allow for the leisure time to care about things like mathematics and such. The first chapters would explain farming in simple terms, and have some helpful techniques, like crop rotation and the like. Next, chapters on more advanced defense measures, since we do *not* want our target group wiped out by another tribe, or wolves or bears…

    Then delve into more esoteric subjects like philosophy and math, we want them to expand their minds and create their own culture, not replicate ours, the one that obviously failed in apocolypse.

    The final chapters would have hints of more modern tech, like the forementioned printing press, and flight, and other things obviously out of their current reach, but achieveable.

    Lastly, I would leave a ‘bible code’ for future generations that had more complex information, like warnings related to the cause of the end of the world. Sadly, in this situation such a book would would be interpreted as divine, but there is not much chance of escaping that.

    I like the idea of powerful trinkets, like magnets, so those are in, along with some high quality farming tools and pictures (in stone or metal, again) of how things should look. Plows, harnesses for animal power, etc.

    Really, it is too much to elevate stone age man to the information age without all the intervening tech.


  35. Strangeite says:

    I agree with the people that are stating that we can’t overwhelm them with the entirety of our knowledge. The basics on food and water (crop rotation, plow design, water purification, food preservation, etc.), the basics of hygiene and medicine (germs kill, honey is a good anti-biotic, hand washing saves lives, etc.), the basics of metalurgy (smelting ore, building a furnace, tempering metal, creating alloys, etc.) and the basics of physics (Newton’s laws, a model of the solar system, star charts for navigation, etc).

    Electronics are too unreliable, paper will degrade and metal is too bulky. The only way to preserve the information is to print books made entirely of plastic. Plastic will last 200+ years if not exposed to light and they can remove same from the capsule without too much fear of the elements destroying it quickly.

    The rest of the space would be filled with inspiration. Pictures of the moon landing, children playing in a hydrant in an urban area, giant combines harvesting fields in Kansas, Olympic stadium, shots of the Earth from space, etc. These pictures should be awe inspiring and show what we consider mundane life.

    Last but not least, I would have a music box created using only brass that plays Beethoven’s No. 8 Movement 2 from symphony No. 7.

    With the foundation of the plastic books and the inspiration from the music and pictures, they will create their own future and my guess is that it will be in ways you could never imagine.

  36. Lazlo says:

    Lots of good suggestions here, but one I don’t recall seeing: a map of all of the major landfills around the world (or near the site of the time capsule at least). 200 years isn’t enough time, by many orders of magnitude, for tectonics to bring new metals near the surface, and we’ve pretty much tapped out the majority of easily-mineable metals. The best mines will be our trash.

  37. RibbitRibbit says:

    One option: A condensed version of The Bible, with changes by yours truly. It’s a matter of personal taste/distaste for some of its myths and teachings, but otherwise it’s a good start for ethics, and moreover perhaps some of the stuff survived in oral form, so it will lend credence to “my” version. Some of the “thou shall not”s will be related to stuff that we’re doing wrong today, and to the catastrophe that’s about to come. Everything printed on something which won’t be ravaged by time, like super-durable plastic.

    That’s it. Civilization will begin anew, people. So it will take mankind ten thousand years more. Who gives a damn. Eventually, they will find our relics under the soil anyway. If I’m to be even trickier, I will hide hints on where the Stuff of the Ancients might be found inside the “new” holy text, along with a detailed map of the world.

    A second option: a rifle with telescopic sights, and fill the rest with ammo. And a manual for repairs, cleaning, and how to make more ammo.

  38. Eric J says:

    A still with pictographic instructions and an illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra.

  39. Miako says:

    How long were they guaranteeing the first CD’s? I’m pretty dang sure it was more than 1000 years (optimistic much, dev team?).

    You could probably fit the entire library of congress on some CDs, with the proper compression (self extracting archives). Text ain’t too difficult to compress, and it ain’t too large.

    One meter cube of DVDs. That’s what, 50 Terabytes? Add in a “don’t scratch me” post it (made of metal, as suggested above).

    World’s Best Riddle! It may take them millenia to solve, but it’ll be worth it!

    (seriously, were we under some obligation to help them out, or to merely help the future out?)

  40. OddlucK says:

    Oooh! Can we find some way to guide them to create the flying car by the end of their 20th Century?! That was the biggest disappointment of the 90’s–no flying car.

  41. Trianglehead says:

    I’m with Factoid. The real increase in development came with the printing press and was the first thing I thought of. So plans and instructions on it seem of high importance, as it will allow for distribution of knowledge quickly again as they make their own discoveries. Obviously with a cubic meter there is still plenty of room for some basic things. I think one of those nice glossy laminated cheat sheets for the major subjects, chemistry, mathematics, natural science. A book on farming techniques. Then all these things could be recreated and distributed thanks to the printing press.

  42. Shinan says:

    All you really need to kickstart civilization is a couple of guns and some ammo for them. I’m sure the people who find the capsule will make good use of them to start the new civilization. (built upon the power of the old one)

  43. I suck at these types of thought experiments.

    But if I could put a miniature, fully-functioning Shamus into the capsule, I would do so in gratitude for referring to the clever scientist as a “she”.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank YOU!


  44. Ingvar says:

    Um, how long do I have to prepare for stuffing it? This would, as they say, be crucial.

    Start with a beginner’s book of math. We’ll happily assume that Future Finder understands positional numbering systems (though we can HOPEFULLY bootstrap this using set representations next to numbers to build up a “vocabulary” of the first 20 numbers, after that we can hope it’s self-evident).

    In parallel, try to bootstrap an “English for non-speakers” (though how to go from there to the mre abstract things needed, I do not know).

    Bootstrap from “simple English” and “basic maths” into more advanced mathematics. Then start an “electronics primer” (using, I dunno, vaccum tube-level stuff) and from there describe how to build a simple reader for a punched-paper tape. Provide mylar tapes with densely punched holes and try to fit enough of a bootstrap to build solid-state lasers (probably Very Tricky, but may be doable, if we can get the storage density high enough) and the ISO filesystem layout, then fill the last cubic foot with DVDs, filled with all sorts of useful stuff.

  45. Vextra says:

    Some might argue that this has already been done by ancient civilizations. Afterall, what better way to pass on your ancient knowledge than build gigantic stone monoliths that attract attention, curiousity from the right sort, and which are inscribed with the things your civilization consider the ‘right sort’ of knowledge?

    Noone knows just how OLD the sphinx is for example, and there are all sorts of crazy theories about the origins of Mesoamerican Civilization…

  46. briatx says:

    I don’t think I would include anything technological etc., because I don’t know that there is an inherent value in pushing “civilization” (in the sense of a complex division of a labor). A hunter gatherer society might be more sustainable.

    Maybe books on ethics? But I don’t know which I would choose.

  47. Axcalibar says:

    If humanity can survive 100+ years using spears and skins, then the human spirit has prevailed. Nothing that can be contained in a capsule would be necessary. Why do we assume that our current civilization and technology is superior to what future generations would build? I have firm confidence that mankind can survive any catastrophe.

    That said, Twinkies.

  48. midget0nstilts says:

    Actually, I see a lot in here suggesting that “stone age” people (which I am going to assume are hunter-gathers) spend every moment of their wretched existence living in misery and hard labor. Not true. Hunter-gatherers actually lived a pleasant existance, only have to hunt/gather for a few hours per week, and the rest was mostly leisure time. They were egalitarian (although there are/were exceptions), and IIRC, they lived to be at least 50.

    What really brought on the rise of technology is because humanity basically had no choice. More people required more intensive food-producing techniques moving up to slash-and-burn to crop rotation, etc. This made people have to work *much* harder. *THAT*’s when life became miserable. This did not reverse until the industrial revolution where machines finally began to save us time.

    In that case, I would have no desire to advance their technology along, assuming that would even be possible. They will if they need to. I would instead create a storage device intended for a technologically advanced civilization, so that they could learn from us. It would be made of metal and have grooves like a record. It would store data in digital format with instructions on decoding etched on sheet metal. There would be a thin plate of some radioactive metal, say, uranium so that this civilization could “prove” that it came from our time, assuming they understood the concept of half-lives. The container itself would be designed to be only openable by advanced civilizations. I’m not sure how this would be done. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    Oh, and I stole my storage idea from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_Golden_Record

  49. Adeon says:

    My first thought was (as other have suggested) information on agriculture, metallurgy and the printing press.

    However I was thinking about the the novel The Mote in God’s Eye and realized that in general our descendants are probably going to have a real shortage of easily accessible metal ores and (especially) fossil fuels since we have generally exhausted them already. Most of the fossil fuels we extract today are only accessible because of our technology. This would make it very difficult for them to get the industrial revolution going since they would be mostly dependent on wind, water and wood for their power generation all of which have some severe limitations.

    This suggests that we either need to include some information on advanced mining techniques for a low tech civilization or information on how to usefully generate mechanical energy without ready access to fossil fuels.

  50. Magnus says:

    A stone tablet, the size of a sheet of A4 paper.

    Written on it…

    “This world, that you think is yours, is mine. And I’m taking it back. I’m taking it ALL back!”

  51. Torsten says:

    Shamus, have you by any change read Alan Weisman’s book World Without Us? That book is a research of what would be left of our civilization if all humans suddenly disappear.

    I’m going to make a lot of assuming on this scenario, but everyone else does that too. I’m living in Europe so I would leave the capsule there. Since you dont define the disaster I’m going to assume that it only affects humans and leaves animals and buildings intact, but wipes out 99,9% of human population. Today that would leave about 6 million people scattered around the world, probably living in small communities. They are literate, but without knowledge of modern technology and history, although signs of it would still be around. Some buildings would be standing and there would be plastic and metal items.

    I’d leave the capsule somewhere where they speak germanic languages. Everything would be at least in English, German, French, Spanish and Swedish or there would be dictionaries for those languages. I’d include a world atlas and books of history, geography, art and philosophy, so that they would understand the remains of our society and know that there might be other survivors. The spot where the capsule is would be marked on the maps so that people can figure out where they are. There would also be some navigation tools. Other books would be about agriculture, metallurgy, healthcare and some instructions on how to make steam engine, electricity, penicillin and other stuff that form the basis of big innovations.

    Instead of actual books I would use plastic files and laminate all sheets in plastic too to make sure they can last a few centuries.

  52. midget0nstilts says:

    I just thought of a way my record could stored only for tech-advanced civs…. Put it on the moon! (Shamus didn’t say anything about where the capsule could or could not be put.) It would of course be in some sort of obviously artificial structure so it could be easily found.

  53. Gerg says:

    WALL-E. I think he’s less than 1 cubic meter. He can teach humans to love and laugh again, and also, oddly, farm and possibly how to domesticate insects. He’s also eating-resistant.

  54. Luke Maciak says:

    Ok, here is the thing – paper is not that durable either. I’d put the most important writing in something that doesn’t fade or deteriorate when exposed to sunlight, humidity and temperature variances.

    I’d say we laser etch the most important stuff on some light aluminum alloy or plastic. We can probably manufacture very thin sheets that will be more durable than paper.

    Then, in case they can’t read I’d include a pictographic rosetta stone. I’d have simple pictures with the words in several languages next to them and perhaps a few of simple illustrated childrens book – like “See Spot Run” so that they can try to figure out english grammar.

    Of course this introductory material may be taking space for no reason – perhaps these people will retain enough knowledge to be able to read basic English, Then again, maybe not.

    It is also very likely that the English 200 years post apocalypse will be very different from the language we use today. I mean, we have to translate texts from the old english to modern english because they are unreadable to an untrained layperson.

    So I think including some material that would allow them to learn how our written language works would be beneficial.

    As for multimedia materials – I wouldn’t trust a laptop or a kindle like device. How about a wound up gramophone and assortment of discs they could use with it. I’d use something more durable and prone to scratches than vinyl – so they can’t destroy the data just by scratching it. Maybe laser etching the grove in some durable alloy would be best?

    This way we could deliver voice data to go with our books and charts. I’m not sure if there is a way to make a low tech video projector that does not use film (cause film will deteriorate quickly and is easily damaged).

    After we are done with the basic english lessons I would include basic algebra and geometry concepts. We should teach them how to calculate distances, angles, measure areas and etc. We should also show them some basic lo-fi technology – pulleys, counterweights, etc. Give them basic physics knowledge – stuff about forces, thermodynamics and etc.

    We should also include materials on agriculture, farming, domesticating animals, breeding and etc. And of course medical knowledge. We ought to have an illustrated guide which shows them which herbs and plants to use for what ailments, and give them basic idea that sickness is caused by the bacteria/viruses so they can skip all the crackpot theories about humors, bloodletting and etc..

    The idea is to bring them up to the technological level that existed in ancient Rome or Egypt in a relatively short time. The hope is that they can take this knowledge and go right into an industrial revolution of their own.

    It’s probably a good idea to include couple of more advanced scientific and technical texts for later. We could put these on a microfilm like Shamus suggested – these would contain our advanced scientific knowledge and it would require them to reach a certain level of understanding to decode it.

  55. animusf6 says:

    Time capsules are nice and fancy, of course, but why not use something with more, I don’t know, permanence? Like these guys [wikipedia.org].

  56. Elzair says:

    A 1m^3 box would probably be too small for what I would put in, but I would do my best. First, I would go light on the books and try to put in more practical things. First, I would put in a mini steam engine and photos of its operation and purpose. Then I would put in a lathe and as many other machine tools as would fit. Then, I would store a durable custom-computer with simple controls (maybe an engraving with images detailing its operations a la the Voyager Golden Record). On it, I would put many good textbooks covering Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Engineering, etc. I would try to go light on the theory (future scientists can rederive everything if they feel like it). I would place information on where to find hydrocarbons, useful minerals like copper, iron, gold, silver, etc. I would also definitely include information on how to build dams; I would put a bunch of information on steam power. I would also include videos of important Chemistry and Physics experiments, although the practical stuff would be more important.

  57. McGurker says:

    I once found a page that had all this information on it for ‘if you are suddenly back in time’

    I bet somebody has already reference it, but lemme see if I can find it anyway.

    Nope. Awesome. Well…that’s what I would put in.


  58. Robert says:

    A copy of “The Ancient Engineers”, by L. Sprague DeCamp, rendered into pictographic form, and a basic set of tools. If they can’t figure it out from there, they deserve to rot in the stone age.

  59. Aergoth says:

    We’re assuming religion is bad a lot of the time here (and it can be, but we’ll stay away from that). I prefer the idea of Leto II from the Dune Series. If you can’t beat religion, own it in the face and use it for your own purposes. Jewish and Islamic food prohibitions for instance, are a good idea, since they act naturally to prevent people from eating things that might make them sick, or would waste food.

    So my list. A book filled with metal sheets (yes, I’m stealing here) detailing the following:
    Pasturization and boiling of water to make it safe.
    Crop Rotation and basic agriculture
    Some basic navigation principles that don’t depend on the stars or other astronomical phenomena.
    The basic idea of germs and transmission of infectious disease.
    How to bake flat bread
    How to make soap (fat and ashes essentially)
    A rephrased set of food prohibitions (I’m not going to copy the religious text verbatim, but it’s probably easier to have them not eat pigs then teach the cultivation of penicillin)
    Architecture (bridges, huts)
    Codify all this in a semi-religious fashion. With any luck they might adopt it as scripture.
    Include a brief history of humanity over the last two centuries. Make sure to point out the mistakes we made glaringly. Tools that might be necessary to get this started, with the explicit instructions that they copy them to make more, and a D20 the size of my fist.

  60. Mr. Son says:

    Wow, no one’s suggested this yet? A stone or metal tablet reading:

    “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

    More seriously, I totally Nth instructions for a printing press (and paper-making technology). Even with no futher help, the ability to easily share information will speed their own technological progress considerably.

    But definitely the Ozymandias line.

  61. halka says:

    A can of gasoline and some matches.

  62. Alex says:

    -Portable DVD Players

    -Portable Televisions

    -A f#$%-tonne of Batteries for both which, for the sake of conversation, let us assume have somehow survived intact throughout the ages/apocalypse.

    -Various copies of the entire series of Azumanga Daioh on DVD(again, assuming they have not eroded into a fine powder at this point and can still be watched).

    -And if there is any room left(I don’t know what a cubic meter is, visually), a portable mp3 player filled with classical and video game music.

    -Or if none of those things can fit into a cubic meter, a single, framed picture of Chuck Norris.

    That should be sufficient. That’ll give the future-men straggling the wastes a good idea of what we’re all about.

    (NOTE: This list also applies to any and all “Desert Island” hypotheticals)

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