Time Capsule Etiquette
May 29, 2005 7:56 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to assemble a small time capsule, and I'd like to drop it into the Atlantic Ocean. How can I do this?

Lee Valley sells a beautiful, brass time capsule which claims to be both airtight and watertight. It would surely catch the eye of some future explorer. I figure the best way to assure that a time capsule remains undisturbed for the longest period of time, short of launching it into space, would be to submerge it in the ocean.

I don't own a boat, but I don't think I would need to be too far offshore. Do cruise ships have a policy about guests tossing objects overboard? Do ferries? If I planned to go deep-sea fishing and brought the capsule along, would I risk getting the captain into trouble? I don't believe it's littering if you place a message into a bottle and toss it overboard, because you intend it to be found -- but nautical law probably disagrees.

Educate me.
posted by cribcage to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Watertight it may be, but will it sink? I doubt any captain of a fishing boat will give much of a fuck if you throw your capsule overboard.
posted by mischief at 8:29 PM on May 29, 2005

Well, it's international law after about 14 km off the coast of any country (correct me on the amount if I'm wrong). As we all know international law = anarchy. :-) I suppose whether or not you could get in trouble would depend on the flag your ship flies under. Basically, nobody will care.

However, the chances of that capsule ever being "discovered" are incredibly low (probably on the same level as your chances of living on mars in the near future) if you decide to drop it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you were to put it on a coastal area it might be found. I have my doubts. It'd be rather small and if you don't intend to tell someone it's there, nobody is going to be looking for it.

But that's just my pessimistic side. Otherwise, what the hell, go for it! :-D
posted by shepd at 8:49 PM on May 29, 2005

The biggest problem is not in getting it to the bottom of the ocean, but in having any hope of it being found. Within a number of years, the cylinder will be pretty well integrated into the ocean floor, I would expect and the chances of someone coming across it would be extremely slim.

The only way to have any real hope of someone coming across it would be to take a reading from GPS of exactly where you left it and put that in your will or somewhere so that, if anyone cares, they know it exists and can find it again.

On preview - as shepd says, you have nothing to lose so, if you want to do it, do it and to hell with what happens in 100 years!
posted by dg at 8:52 PM on May 29, 2005

Make sure you don't dump it near any ferrous debris, or it'll be eaten up by electrolysis.
posted by teg at 9:01 PM on May 29, 2005

Noting teg's link, perhaps a better way to ensure that your stuff will be found would be to make the capsule itself buoyant, but attached to a weight with something that will take a while to degrade in seawater. That way, it'll stay at the bottom for a while, and eventually rise to the surface. I'm no marine engineer, so I have no idea if this'll work or not.
posted by greatgefilte at 9:35 PM on May 29, 2005

I would opt for a ceramic, stainless steel, or perhaps teflon capsule, as brass corrodes, especially in sea water.
posted by hortense at 9:40 PM on May 29, 2005

I was having some brickwork done in my flat, and put a small package alongside an air duct before the cavity was sealed. I described who I am, what I do, included a few photos, some artwork I'd made, a CD of some music I like and a few newspaper articles I thought were significant.

Sometime someone may have to open up this duct for maintenance and they just might find my package. For reasons others have mentioned, you might want to avoid dropping it in the water. I took the QM2 to New York last year and cruise liners do have prohibitions about dropping stuff overboard. I can't remember all the details but the closer you are to port the more stringent and strident they seemed to be.
posted by Mutant at 11:13 PM on May 29, 2005

I never heard about any regulations, but having been on several cruises, you can easily find a moment to toss it overboard with a very small likelihood of observation. There were enough times at 2 or 3 AM when me and my acquaintances were the only people I could see "outdoors" on the ship. That said, if it sinks to a depth more than scuba divers will visit, no one is ever going to find it. Even if you put in a will where it is, no one's going to send Ballard and his Titanic expedition to find your time capsule.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:47 AM on May 30, 2005

The US Coast Guard regulations
seem to be directed more at the ship
then people on board, but Cunard repreatedly warned us about tossing stuff overboard.

I agree that in the dead of the night you could get away with it, especially in the middle of the ocean.
posted by Mutant at 2:24 AM on May 30, 2005

The law doesn't matter. No one will see you and you will harm nothing.

But if you're going to make a time capsule, you want it to be found -- there is no other point to making one -- but you want it to be found a number of years from now, not tomorrow, or people in November 2005 will laugh at your "Greetings from June 2005!" message. It has to be somewhere that people are likely to leave alone for a long time, but not forever, and where they won't just scoop everything up and dump it into the ocean if they ever need to disturb the place.

Hide it in the structure or grounds of an historic building that would likely be subject to archeological survey before destruction. (But don't get caught looking sneaky with a metal cylinder that someone might think is a bomb.) Bury it at night, or while pretending to be planting flowers, over your great-grandmother's grave. Things like that.

Maybe make several capsules referring to one another, so that whoever finds one knows about them all. And then, if you really want to throw one into the ocean, at least people will know where and when you did it, even if they'll have trouble getting it.

Judging by human behavior and constant advances in technology, it is safe to assume that people in the future will travel underwater much more often than they do now and to much greater depths, and that recreational treasure hunters (like today's geeks with metal detectors) will be part of that, so it isn't entirely crazy to imagine that someone will find it in the middle of the ocean.
posted by pracowity at 3:10 AM on May 30, 2005

I did this as a child. If you want it to be found then I would build a floating one, rather than one which will lie on the ocean floor undiscovered for eternity. The excitement will probably have to come from where it lands, rather than how long it lies undiscovered.

I gave mine to a friend to throw off a ferry from the UK to Norway. He had no problem throwing it overboard, when he was about half way there. About 2 weeks later I got a letter from a girl who found it on a beach in Hull, thus rendering my bilingual questionnaire about foreign culture and the "top ten singles in your country!" highly embarrassing.
posted by fire&wings at 4:05 AM on May 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

I could see them finding it as they excavate for an underwater city or platforms for an ocean city or massive fish/kelp/plankton/? farm or something in a few hundred years or more. Metal wouldn't last--i'd go with ceramic or plastic.
posted by amberglow at 4:18 AM on May 30, 2005

if you drop something to the ocean floor then you should worry about the depth of water. i suspect most containers will crush, even at quite unimpressive depths.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:01 AM on May 30, 2005

Specifically, I bet Lee Valley's "watertight" means "won't get soaked when you bury it in the ground", and not "withstands the pressure of the ocean floor".

The other way to do a time capsule is to bury it where lots of people know about it, but won't dig it up for a long time; there's one downtown here under a sidewalk, with a carved stone on top of it explaining that it's there and that it's going to be opened a hundred years from whenever it was buried. That was a public project, of course, but a private one might work just as well.

Or, Lee Valley provides a display stand -- you could keep it in your own possession and then will it to someone you trust to will it to someone else, and so on, until a certain period of time has passed.
posted by mendel at 8:10 AM on May 30, 2005

I bet Lee Valley's "watertight" means "won't get soaked when you bury it in the ground", and not "withstands the pressure of the ocean floor".

Yeah, I would also bet that that's true. If you want a capsule that will survive the pressures of the ocean bottom for years and years, you'll have to do some serious work. Maybe find a way to make the contents waterproof, like gunking them in something that won't rot and won't corrode the contents, an inert wax or something of the sort.

For a capsule on land, how about planting a tree over it, so the capsule is in the roots?

Whatever you do, I think you should make more than one if you want to make the chances good that one will be found. You could put plaques on them, but them you'd have to hope people wouldn't snatch them prematurely.

You don't know anyone in the building trades, do you? What if you got a developer to put a capsule in every building they put up? You could involve the buyers. A building's basement could be designed to hold a time capsule for each owner in succession, maybe in a series of cemented-in niches.
posted by pracowity at 10:39 AM on May 30, 2005

Mutant writes "I was having some brickwork done in my flat, and put a small package alongside an air duct before the cavity was sealed. I described who I am, what I do, included a few photos, some artwork I'd made, a CD of some music I like and a few newspaper articles I thought were significant. "

One of the cool things about doing renovations is newspapers were sometimes used as "insulation" and were also put between shiplap sub floors and the hardwood to cut drafts and reduce squeaking. When you come across these papers you get a little day in the life of the time your house was built.

If a person is really serious about a personal time capsule one can amend your deed and bury it on your property. Every future purchaser until the expiry date would be bound to preserve the capsule and also they would know it's there and where it is located.
posted by Mitheral at 10:42 AM on May 30, 2005

pracowity writes "Yeah, I would also bet that that's true. If you want a capsule that will survive the pressures of the ocean bottom for years and years, you'll have to do some serious work. Maybe find a way to make the contents waterproof, like gunking them in something that won't rot and won't corrode the contents, an inert wax or something of the sort. "

Heres an approach: Take a chunk of 8 inch schedule 160 brass pipe. Fill with time capsule items and then screw on threaded brass caps. Because of the way brass resists corrosion you'll lose about .1 mm of brass thickness a year the first couple of years but afterwords the rate of loss declines logithmically. A 8" Sch160 pipe has a wall thickness of 23mm so you've got a lot to play with and a piece of pipe like that will handle a lot of external pressure before collapsing.
posted by Mitheral at 11:12 AM on May 30, 2005

The capsule you link to has a rubber seal. It is not meant for ocean drops. An all brass, all stainless, ceramic, heavy glass or PVC container might be a better bet. The simplest thing is to buy a piece of pipe, (not steel) cut it to length, put on endcaps. The PVC is probably cheapest, easiest to find and work, and will easily outlast you.

I have also sealed up odds and ends in various walls for the next guy to find. Catalogs, boots, Kahlua bottle, etc.
posted by Ken McE at 7:24 PM on May 30, 2005

I'm still waiting for a message in a bottle to be found, it's been a year. Bottles are cheap :-)
(I was hoping for a few weeks, since the idea was that a finder would email where it was found, and update the "ship's log" before throwing it out again, to continue the jouney. If each leg lasts over a year, I imagine the cork would rot or something).
posted by -harlequin- at 11:50 PM on May 30, 2005

If you're going to put it on the bottom of the ocean, there's just no point in going through all kinds of trouble making it waterproof and durable, because as noted above, there's just about zero chance of it ever being found.

If that doesn't deter, I would find a way to seal the stuff without any air into a glass block. Some types of glass are going to crack or crumble over time, so you need the right kind (like, the stuff they seal nuclear waste into). Then, package the block into a plywood box. It should be heavy enough so the plywood doesn't make it float, but the plywood will keep the glass from fracturing if it hits something on the way down. In time the plywood will rot away, leaving your memento waiting for the ocean to dry up, or something.

If you want to go by the books, consider getting a special permit under the Ocean Dumping Act, US Code Chapter 33, Title 27.
posted by beagle at 11:56 AM on May 31, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies.

I think there's a good chance it would be found. Brass should endure well underwater (although I appreciate teg's link), and it should catch the eye or camera of some future explorer. As I said, I don't expect to drop it miles offshore. There's zero chance of it being discovered today, of course -- but a modicum of imagination magnifies the likelihood of it being found within a few hundred years. And if not, well, I'm nobody famous. No loss.

I do like the idea of sealing a capsule to keep in the family, except for two problems. First, I'm not certain I trust purely-hypothetical descendants to resist curiosity. And second, I think it's somewhat inconsiderate. If my father said to me, "I sealed this time capsule. You can't open it, and neither can your children. Keep it safe." I don't know. I think I'd feel a bit...passed over.

But thanks. The on-point replies were informative. The rest were amusing too -- partly because I'm surprised so many MeFites either (a) have so little imagination, or (b) assume a time capsule would be opened within the founder's lifetime. The last response is particularly funny, since at least two of the three examples have been found. I assume that was intentional.

Maybe I'll repost in a few weeks with a different tack: "If you were going to assemble a time capsule, what would you include?" I'm hoping for a lapse of at least a hundred years, so I'm not looking to include CDs or disks. I'd try to make it objective from a personal perspective, if that makes sense -- like reading a few pages from a Spartan citizen on life in his time. I'd probably include some coins, and maybe a few self-explanatory tools like a pen or a compass.
posted by cribcage at 10:38 PM on May 31, 2005

I love the idea, but since ocean water will destroy just about anything given a few years, I definitely second all that urging of serious time and thought put into the engineering side of things, else it will just be a waste of time and thought :-(

My personal favourite suggestion was greatgefilte's to have the capsule bouyant, but anchored to the bottom by a line, such that the line would eventually rust/rot/corrode sufficiently to free the capsule to float and drift until found. It should be relatively straightforward to get engineering specs on materials such that the "line" (or a section of it) could be made of a specific thickness that combined with known corrosion rate gives a roughly defineable period before it frees the capsule.

If you haven't already checked this out, I have a feeling you might also be interested in the Long Now Project. It's primarily about an undertaking to build a clock that will still be operating and accurate ten thousand years from now. That's a formidable and breathtaking engineering challenge (right up there with making a time capsule survive intact in the super-hostile environment of ocean water for a century :-)
They're also into stuff like making artefacts full of info to last millenia, etc. Fun stuff :)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:49 PM on June 1, 2005

« Older Soy milk makers   |   Direct Buy, that snazzy 'insider prices' club, is... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.