Fast Company

The Predecessor To Google Books, Facebook Graph Search, And Rewind.me—In The Early 1900s

In 1913, a visionary group left a time capsule that we were supposed to open right now, in January 2013. This is the story of how we lost it--but how we fulfilled their dreams anyway.

You want an idea to survive hundreds or thousands of years? Step one: Don’t write it on paper. Alexander Konta believed this deeply. Paper yellows and withers and crumbles; it is the printed form of Alzheimer’s. “Why not make [text] imperishable by photographing the written word after it has been printed in books and newspapers and preserve the plate in a fireproof vault?” he asked the New York Observer. It was a hell of an idea, considering he said that in 1911. A century later, that’s more or less how those words of his were preserved: They had been scanned and stored on Google Books.

Konta was just getting started.

He was a wealthy New York banker, and in 1911 founded a group called the Modern Historic Records Association. It billed itself as “the first society ever organized to provide a living history of the times,” and its goal was wildly ambitious: It wanted to marshal the power of the day’s technology--new, exciting machines that captured moving images and recorded voices--to document everything, or at least as much as they could, so that time wouldn’t erase their era as it had at least partially wiped out all of preceding human history.

Between then and now, so much of its vision has come true. Google Books, the Internet Archive, Rewind.Me--it’s the archive system he craved. He argued that cameras and recorders should bear witness to great moments--a wish granted by everything from C-Span to YouTube. “I spoke in my original letter of the historic value of a moving picture of Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Konta once told a reporter. “Would you not like to see him and listen to him on the Fourth of July? Would you not like to be able to bequeath these records to your children’s children? Would that not be far more impressive than the printed speech alone? And would not the speech be doubly guarded against being lost?”

Konta was well connected--a Hungarian immigrant who’d earned his way to the tony address 75 Central Park West--and drafted influential men into his venture. Many celebrities contributed to a project called “The Messages of the Record,” in which they wrote notes to the future on parchment. Even Theodore Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw took part. All of this gained the group national media attention; people were thrilled with the idea of communicating with the future, or at least, with not being forgotten. “Record Of Our Time To Be Imperishable” cheered the New York Times. The Waterloo Times Tribune, of Iowa, even devoted a Sunday front page to the idea, and asked: “How Will the Future Know Us as We Are--Unless We Help It?”

But the press was especially excited about the group’s most gimmicky project: a time capsule. In 1913, it created two identical capsules--one was to be held in the New York Public Library, and the other was supposedly sent to the pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. Each was to be opened in 100 years--specifically on January 1, 2013, a deadline we just missed.

In fact, for all the foresight Konta had, time has played a great trick on the man. He and his group have been largely forgotten; their records are mostly gone, and other people executed their ideas. But the press of the time was right to focus on the time capsules. Something unusual--something very unexpected by the men of the Progressive Era--has happened to those things. They can’t be opened. But they were never quite lost.

* * *

Modern social media began as a fetish for real-time connections--what we’re thinking, reading, watching, all of it outdated the second we post. But now that we’ve written our own gigantic diaries, we’ve entered a flashback phase. The Library of Congress is archiving our tweets. Facebook dragged us into Timeline then a Graph Search that turns us and our social past into definitive search results. Twitter promises downloadable tweet archives. Timehop emails users “a time capsule of you” based on whatever junk they posted on social media a year prior. Cue, Recollect, ArchiveSocial, Backupify: short-term history suddenly has value.

In the scope of long-term history, the effort to systematically archive things is also quite new. In America, the first state archives were set up in Alabama in 1901. The American Historical Association held a “Conference on Archivists” in 1909; it was the first time in American history that self-identified archivists met as a group. “I think that technology played a key role here,” says New York University history professor Peter Wosh. “Historians and early archivists were especially excited about disseminating ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ copies of documentation.”

Konta’s group, however, cited even earlier inspiration. In 1880, a British historian named Fredric Harrison wrote an essay called “A Pompeii For The Thirtieth Century.” It waxed eloquently about his generation’s sudden thirst for the past--exploring pyramids and buried cities, “beginning to feel the unbroken biography of the human race as a single and intelligible story.” And yet, he wrote, archeologists will never find an ancient civilization’s complete tale. To make sure his era isn’t similarly forgotten, he wrote, people should construct a “National Safe” to hold its records. “Let the science and learning of the twentieth century do for the thirtieth century what we would give millions sterling to buy, if the tenth century A.D., or the tenth century B.C., had been able and willing to do it for us,” he wrote. (Harrison would later bless Konta’s efforts.)

Ironically, there are few well-kept, available records of the history of the Modern Historic Records Association. It’s not clear how influential the group even was, or if it survived longer than 1911 to 1913. It met at the National Arts Club in Manhattan, but the organization, which is still at the same address, today says it has no record of the Association. In fact, Konta wasn’t even the only guy at the time to advocate for photographing printed books. But he definitely helped to popularize archiving, drawing lots of press and attention to it, so much so that the Times sometimes referred to him as a “publicist.”

But much like Google Books, the Modern Historic Records Association seems to have run into a simple problem: While the idea of mass archiving seems noble, the act of actually doing it can upset people.

Google Books’s problem is one of ability: Because it has the technology and means to scan and store every book, authors and publishers have sued, claiming that their copyright is being violated. The Records Association’s problem, however, was one of limited ability: Because it couldn’t record everything, it had to pick and choose what--and often, who--was worth saving.

Soon, the high-class organization had devolved into a fraternity rush. One meeting in 1912 was devoted to this question: If photographs can be preserved on imperishable material, whose photographs should be kept? “In this list, [secretary W.T. Larned] had the name of Henry Cabot Lodge, which later was ‘scratched,’” the Times reported. “Mr. Larned did not know why this had been done, but he explained that the list was ‘only tentative.’”

Henry Cabot Lodge--one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.

It got worse from there. Andrew Carnegie’s face was considered worth saving, Larned said, though he “was invited to be here tonight, but is not here.” Mark Twain was deemed “a poor specimen of a man of letters, but about whom we are all permitted to have our own opinions.” Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, and Theodore Roosevelt got the thumbs-up. “I tried to think up a lot of them but nobody would help me,” Larned told the paper. “All I got was criticism.”

More came from outside the meetings, too. A political magazine called The Dial nitpicked the group’s decisions, calling out bad ones or glaring omissions. “It is a pleasant enough diversion that the M. H. R. Association is engaged in, and one wishes it every success,” the magazine condescended, “but it ought not, perhaps, to be viewed with quite the seriousness that” it sought. For an organization that required oodles of money--after all, they’d need enormous, fireproof facilities for their dreamed-of archives--this attitude could have hastened its death.

Alexander Konta

After 1913, the Records Association nearly disappears from the press. One rare appearance comes toward the very end of Alexander Konta’s obituary in the Times, in 1933. In the intervening decades, he’d moved on to other pursuits--including, allegedly, helping the Germans try to buy a newspaper in New York, to spread propaganda. He’d worked hard after that to clear his name. It would have been even harder, presumably, had he needed to contend with a Google search result.

* * *

So, what happened to the time capsule? The New York Public Library received it on Dec 5, 1913. But in 2013, the library had bad news for me: It didn’t have the thing. Poof. Gone. And it’s doubtful the second copy ever made it to the Pyramid of Cheops, as the Records Association intended. (A representative of Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities didn’t respond to requests to comment.)

On a lark, I wondered if the capsule had been taken into the Konta family, passed down for generations. Alexander Konta had no children, but he did have a stepson, Geoffrey. And Geoffrey begat two, who begat more, who begat even more. The Konta legacy seems to have dissolved along the way, at least in some parts. One descendent in Wisconsin says she has a book of Alexander’s, and knows little else about him. But another one in St. Louis is aware of the time capsule, and seems to expect it to spring out of the ground like toast from a toaster. “If you just sit back and wait it will come to you,” she wrote me. “A copper plate inscription instructs that it be opened in 2013 for our generation to enjoy.”

Silly as it sounds, that hopefulness is appropriate. Sealing something for future generations is a ludicrous Hail Mary--a trust that the world will remain stable enough to remember the capsule’s location, but different enough for us to be intrigued by what’s inside. “It is, as far as I know, a modern phenomenon, and one tied to the rise of a secular, rather than religious sense of time,” says University of Georgia history professor Stephen Mihm, who was project manager for a 2001 time capsule created by the Times (to be opened in the year 3000). “The future, in other words, stretches to infinity; it does not terminate in the end of the world.”

The library wasn’t a total dead end, though: They still have a few documents from the Modern Historical Records Association. I went to see them, hoping they’d hold some clues. As it turns out, they held many.

Inside the quiet reading room of the manuscripts and archives department, assistant curator Thomas Lannon laid out the group’s surviving papers: a newspaper clipping, a year-in-review booklet from 1912, two identical notices to members, and a thick stack of what looked like photocopies of handwritten pages. I didn’t even need to puzzle over them: Lannon had already put the clues together. The handwritten pages are copies of one of the association’s earliest projects, The Messages of The Records. Here they are in a bygone era’s cursive--notes to the people of 2013 and beyond, summarizing whatever insight these great men of yore believed was worth saving.

“All that we are trying to do is apply the principles of Abraham Lincoln to the issues of the present day,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt.

“The best stamp of glory which is my ambition is that of passing into history as having obtained the wellbeing of my country,” wrote Alfonxo XIII, King of Spain.

“Most certainly flying machines will have a strong tendency to put a stop to wars,” wrote Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, who invented the machine gun but was a lousy predictor of the future.

They go on, 25 in all, some just a sentence and others as lengthy screeds. George Bernard Shaw wrote a personal pity party about how hard it is to be a creative genius, which today would have been destroyed on Twitter.

How did this stuff survive? The key, it turns out, is in the two identical notices the library has. They are each stamped with a number--#7 and #147--and are notes to the Association’s members, explaining that each was being entrusted with these copies. That meant at least 147 copies were made. “They made sure to make enough copies of things, so that even if you lost one, you had another,” Lannon said, as we looked over the documents. “That’s the first rule of preservation: If you have something that’s important, you make lots of copies and distribute them.”

Then he made another copy, for me to take back to my office.

Perhaps, Lannon wondered aloud, the library has the contents from the time capsule as well. Newspapers from 1913 claim the capsule contained audio of opera stars, audio of Thomas Edison talking, and what the Times described as a movie documenting the “complete record of the facial expression of President Wilson, concluding with his broadest smile.” (The original happy ending!) The group’s 1912 year-in-review booklet even mentions the Edison audio, which it said the group was exploring how best to preserve.

So I called, and was told the library’s audio archives do contain audio of Thomas Edison. Could it be possible that in 1913, the library decided it didn’t want to hang onto a time capsule for 100 years--so instead, it just filed the contents away as normal? “The provenance is murky to unknown for much of the material dating from the earliest era of sound recording,” says Jonathan Hiam, curator of the library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound. “Whereas I would not rule out the possibility, I have my doubts that we have materials from an MHRA time capsule.”

No matter, really. Archive.org has many audio recordings of Edison, such as this one:

There is much video still available of Wilson making facial expressions--and one of them, surely, shows the man smiling. We also have audio of long-dead opera stars. After a few weeks of digging, I even tracked down three of the original Messages of the Record parchments: They’re filed away in university library archives. (The Shaw one was bought at 1991 at auction. It’s unclear what happened to the group of 25, or how it was broken apart.)

Which is to say, the Modern Historical Records Association succeeded.

Time, it believed, should no longer be great pauses of ignorance punctuated by bursts of discovery. Our collective story should be one of accumulation, of continuity--a future aware of its past, and a past aware of its future. The group ultimately wasn’t able to bury anything away for a dramatic, future unearthing, but the information it possessed has melted into our collective biography. Nothing needed preserving in a capsule. It has always been here; we never lost the chapters.

Communicating with the future can’t be that simple, though. “You assume that our civilization will continue to develop without a break,” Konta told an interviewer in 1911, “but there is a theory bourn out by the past, that civilizations reach a certain point, then decline, and even disappear, leaving the human race to start anew at the bottom.”

Konta would surely say we’ve done well over these 100 years, preparing our history to survive that great gulf. But our work has just begun.

Follow Jason Feifer on Twitter @heyfeifer, and Fast Company @fastcompany.

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4 Comments

  • Janet Reinhold

    I like the comment, "Sealing something for future generations is a ludicrous Hail Mary--a trust that the world will remain stable enough to remember the capsule’s location, but different enough for us to be intrigued by what’s inside." But the reference to Mihm seems incorrect; he worked for the New York Times Magazine to my knowledge in 1999 (we did the 4 time capsules for them); the reference to professor at Georgia might be better directed towards Paul Hudson, PhD.

    Janet Reinhold, Pres.
    Future Packaging& Preservation
    www.futurepkg.com
    Covina CA

  • Andrea

    "The group ultimately wasn’t able to bury anything away for a dramatic, future unearthing, but the information it possessed has melted into our collective biography. Nothing needed preserving in a capsule. It has always been here; we never lost the chapters."

    We "never lost the chapters" because of the dedication of the archives profession. You don't need a time capsule you just need to establish and fund instututional and organizational archives. If it wasn't for them the records of the MHRA as well as other history would have been lost. Granted the NYPL did lose the time capsule but it has marvelous archival collections nevertheless that may have been lost if it did not exist.

  • Karola Zambrano de Andrade

    Loved this post... I just wonder weather future generations will be interested in learning about us, as we are now (you know, with all the Kardashians all over the media). 

  • Jason Feifer

    Thanks, Karola! I've wondered the same, but come to this conclusion: The reason we think past generations produced such a potent amount of amazing work—be it the era of Moby Dick or Hamlet—is because the good stuff is remembered and passed down, and the bad stuff is forgotten. I imagine, for example, that there were a lot of truly awful plays written during Shakespeare's time. But history is kinder to quality.