Do not open until 2957: MIT uncovers time capsule

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The time capsule is not to be opened until 2957 AD(Credit: MIT)

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A time capsule that's not to be opened until the year 2957 has been recovered on the MIT campus. The sealed glass container was buried on 1957 and was forgotten until discovered by workers building the new MIT.nano building. It contains a letter to the people of the next millennium and historical artifacts, including an experimental electronic component that once gave the transistor a run for its money.

According to MIT, the container is one of at least eight time capsules that were buried by MIT to commemorate various events, such as the dedication of new buildings. The fact that it was lost track of isn't surprising because it's the common fate of many caches left for future generations. In 1939, MIT buried a capsule to commemorate the installation of a new cyclotron. It was supposed to be recovered in 1989, but it, too, was forgotten and when the MIT administration was reminded of its existence, they couldn't do anything because the capsule was lost somewhere under 36,000 lb (16,329 kg) of reinforced concrete.

University records reveal that the capsule recovered last week was buried in June 5, 1957 by MIT President James R. Killian Jr. and professor of electrical engineering and pioneer of ultra-slow-motion photography pioneer Harold "Doc" Edgerton to mark the opening of the Karl Taylor Compton Laboratories, which would house the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, and the Computation Center with an IBM 704 mainframe computer. What made this capsule so unusual was that instead of being opened in 50 or 100 years, its opening date is a thousand years after its burial.

The design of the capsule reflects this long sleep with details similar to that of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, which was buried during the 1939 New York World's Fair and is scheduled to be opened in 5,000 years. To protect it against the ravages of time, the Westinghouse capsule was made in the form of a cupalloy torpedo with an inner glass shell flooded with nitrogen gas. The MIT capsule is much smaller and discarded the metal shell in favor of an air-tight glass cylinder that was created at the RLE Glass Blowing Lab. After the contents were added, the cylinder was filled with argon gas and sealed with blowtorches by RLE glassblowers Lawrence Ryan and Anthony Velluto.

According to MIT, inside the time capsule is a letter from President Killian explaining that the capsule holds "documents and mementos which tell something of the state of science, technology, and education and, more specifically, the state of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [in 1957]."

Along with the letter is a copy of "A Scientist Speaks," by Karl T. Compton, a keepsake mug for the Class of 1957, an empty tonic bottle, and a container of synthetic penicillin. In addition, there are newly-minted coins from the First National Bank of Boston and a sample of carbon-14, so if the cylinder is cracked and the documents inside are destroyed, it will still be possible to date the capsule.

The Cryotron

One item of particular interest is a cryotron – an almost unknown electronic device that was invented in the 1950s by MIT's Dudley Allen Buck and at the time looked to outdo the transistor as the future of computers.

The cryotron is basically a switch that uses superconductivity. It consists of two superconducting wires made of tantalum, copper, niobium, or other materials that superconduct at different temperatures. When a current goes through one of the wires, it generates a magnetic field, which switches the other wire from superconducting to resistance. This allows it to do the job of a digital computer's logic switch. The cryotron also shows gain, which means it can control a larger current like a triode or transistor.

Buck saw the cryotron as being the key to drastically reducing the size of computers. Using micro-miniaturisation and printed circuits, he believed that computers that in 1957 filled entire rooms could be fitted into a briefcase and use the same power as a Christmas-tree bulb.

After Bucks untimely death in 1959 due to either viral pneumonia or toxic fumes inhaled in a lab accident, work continued on the cryotron, but the development of robust silicon microchips and ferric core memories made it obsolete in the 1960s. However, it may make a comeback in the near future in the field of quantum computing.

"Normally our conversation with the future is through the things we invent or the discoveries we make," says Deborah Douglas, director of collections for the MIT Museum. "We don't very often write actual letters, seal up boxes of memories, or create a hope chest for the future. But for all the sweetness and sentimentality of the time capsule, MIT does care passionately about the future, making this a lovely reminder of a quality the Institute is best known for."

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