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Hidden Treasure

A subterranean stash of ’60s artifacts

A hundred meters in front of the Green Building, a metal giant rises from the gray paving. Thirty-three tons of curved steel stand tall; five black planes touch at angles, then bloom outward. Forty feet high, this Alexander Calder sculpture shields the open mouth of the building behind, its wide plates deflecting winds from the river. It is called La Grande Voile, or The Big Sail.

The Loot Professors Shrock and Edgerton take stock of their collection before packing it up.

Visitors to MIT walk by the sculpture daily. They stop to take photographs, lean in to touch the cool metal and run their fingers over its black surface. Few know that it stands guard over a sarcophagus about the size of a person, buried just a few feet beneath the ground.

On a sunny afternoon in May 1966, a small crowd gathered in front of The Big Sail. All eyes focused on a cylindrical tube that hung from chains on a cantilever, suspended near the joint formed at the sculpture’s southeast corner.

The ceremony was short. MIT president Julius Adams Stratton ‘23, SM ‘26, said a few words. Robert Shrock, HM ‘61, professor and former chair of the Department of Geology, read a letter to the gathering. He then invited Margaret McDermott, crisply attired in a dark coat, to step forward. (McDermott and her husband, Eugene, an MIT Corporation member, had commissioned the sculpture.) She pressed a button that began the movement of chains and machinery, ceremonially lowering the tube into the crypt where it lies to this day.

Shrock and Harold “Doc” Edgerton, SM ‘27, ScD ‘31, the inveterate MIT inventor, had first discussed plans for this burial weeks before, when they looked up at the Green Building and talked about the artwork that would soon be assembled in McDermott Court. “Why don’t we bury a time capsule under the sculpture that will stand here?” Edgerton asked. Shrock, a man of spunk and humor, needed little persuading. The two men contacted the donors of the sculpture and various offices at MIT, expressing a wish “to leave for posterity a few things representing our culture, and particularly our science.”

The idea caught on, and preparations to fill the capsule began in earnest. Over the next few weeks, Shrock gathered on his large desk objects that would represent science and, as the MIT Office of Public Relations put it, “a sampling of the culture of 1966.” The New England Merchants National Bank of Boston donated a Lincoln penny, a Jefferson nickel, a Roosevelt dime, a Washington quarter, and a Kennedy half-dollar. A student gave up his 1967 MIT class ring. There was a four-inch miniature of a Corvette, a shard of pottery, and the April 8 issue of Time magazine. Small plates of various metals sat in stacks on Shrock’s desk–stainless steel, galvanized iron, copper, nichrome, tantalum. Across campus, in the engineering laboratories, Edgerton stockpiled electrical goods: capacitors, resistors, and transistors.

On May 3, two days before the time capsule was to be buried, the conspirators convened in the Research Laboratory of Electronics. A black-and-white photograph of Shrock and Edgerton shows the two graying men caught like nine-year-olds at play as they survey their loot. Their glee is plainly evident. “Here’s the stuff,” they seem to be saying.

Over the course of that afternoon, Shrock and Edgerton stashed the items one by one into a vertical glass tube. Once the objects were arranged, they packed in spun glass as stuffing and evacuated the air from the tube, replacing it with argon. Then they placed the tube in copper casing, welded it shut, and lodged it at the center of a double-layered asbestos cylinder. Bedecked in this asbestos wrapping, the finished time capsule stood six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Two days later, it was lowered with its precious cargo into a concrete-lined dugout in McDermott Court.

Among the items buried in the time capsule is a letter written and signed by Shrock and Edgerton, addressed to scientists of the future. In it, they express a hope that generations to follow will “remember and value our contributions to the advancement of mankind.”

Neither man set a date for the time capsule’s removal, and perhaps it will never be brought to the surface. In any case, it bears testimony to the whimsy of two men of science who, though giants in their fields, still found the time to bury treasure.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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