Center Stage: Sunday School time capsule

At first glance, the shiny, buffed surface of the general Sunday School's new globe-shaped time capsule — with its sharply etched outlines of the world's continents — belies the complexity of its high-tech creation.

But the results should prove well worth the effort, said Elder Harold G. Hillam of the Presidency of the Seventy and general Sunday School president, since this titanium time capsule will be placed on prominent display in the Church Office Building for the next 50 years.

"We are extremely pleased with the time capsule, and very appreciative of the diligence and skill of the students who created it," declared Elder Hillam.

The capsule, known as the sesquicentennial time capsule, is the third in a series of time capsules created since the Sunday School was organized 150 years ago.

The practice of creating a Sunday School time capsule began in 1899, 50 years after Richard Ballantyne organized the first Sunday School Dec. 9, 1849, on a cold Sunday morning in his simple log home just two years after the first pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley.

That first capsule stored memorabilia and records of the first 50 years of the Sunday School. It was opened during the Sunday School Centennial Conference held in conjunction with the April general conference in 1949. From the pulpit in the Tabernacle, President George Albert Smith opened the box and described the contents as each item was presented.

Later that year, the second time capsule — the centennial box — was filled with the histories and records of the second 50 years of the Sunday School and sealed in a time capsule created from special woods sent to Church headquarters from missions around the world.

This centennial time capsule was opened earlier this year prior to April general conference by President Gordon B. Hinckley in special ceremonies with General Authorities in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building lobby.

To continue the tradition of creating time capsules, the general presidency of the Sunday School — Elder Hillam and his counselors, Elders Neil L. Andersen and John H. Groberg of the Seventy — commissioned the construction of a third time capsule to be opened in the year 2049.

The Sunday School general presidency wanted the new time capsule to reflect the latest in technology and materials. With that direction, a committee of engineering professors at BYU was asked to submit four concepts that met the criteria.

The Sunday School general presidency chose the model of a globe-shaped sphere fashioned out of titanium.

Five BYU engineering students were then assigned in October 1998 to create the 28-inch diameter sphere as part of their senior project, known as Capstone. The student committee of Burke Hunsaker, Craig Yost, David Preece, Hank Howell and Ray Henderson met daily to brainstorm and discover how to make the orb functional and esthetically pleasing.

"There was no doubt this design was the most difficult of the four alternatives," explained Burke, whose assignment on the student committee was to select a fabricator to shape the metal. "Vendor after vendor thought it unwise to shape titanium in a sphere, saying it was too difficult to hold such fine tolerances. I contacted upwards of 100 fabricators. Only two submitted bids with acceptable quotes."

But by the end of the first semester, Burke had arranged with an out-of-state fabricator to shape the sphere during the students' Christmas vacation. The construction plan called for a step-by-step process that required a regimented schedule with precise deadlines. They figured that if the orb was shaped by February, there would be sufficient time during the spring to mask, dip in a chemical bath, and buff the sphere before an unveiling in April.

"We were elated in November when we reported our progress to the Capstone committee," Burke said. But when the fabricator called during the holidays to say they were unable to complete the project, "I pushed the panic button," he added, describing the frenzy he felt while discussing the problem with his staff advisers, Tracy Nelson and Robert Todd.

As the holiday came to an end, prospects for completing the project on time looked bleak when suddenly, unexpected pieces to a complex puzzle began to fall into place.

Through a series of phone calls, Burke tapped into a pool of knowledgeable people with reputable contacts in the industry. By early February 1999 — six weeks later than anticipated — the two halves of the titanium sphere were delivered. "This put our backs against the wall," Burke said.

They worked for several weeks preparing the surface of the sphere, then, on the morning before they were scheduled to dip the two halves in an acid bath to create the outline of the continents, they applied an adhesive-backed orange peel map of the world.

"We were nearly hysterical," Burke said, describing the nervous anxiety of meeting their second major deadline.

They planned to leave the sphere with a vendor in Salt Lake City who would dip each half in a chemical bath over the weekend. Earlier tests showed that 40 minutes in the acid bath would dissolve the desired amount of titanium around the masking, giving the continents an embossed appearance. But the chemical bath was more volatile than tests had shown and, as a result, a hole was eaten through the side of one of the halves.

Eventually, the problems were overcome, but the sphere had a dull, scale-like appearance. "We expected some polishing, but nothing like this," said Burke.

The students learned that the time capsule wouldn't be needed until later in the year so they could work on it during the summer.

A member of the group, Craig Yost, pulled out a box with 25 sheets of sandpaper and began sanding.

"The titanium just laughed at our sandpaper," Burke said. "We went through the whole box, and at the end, there was no noticeable difference. The titanium, with the etching and milling, had become so tough that normal sandpaper made no difference."

They resorted to a more abrasive sandpaper. In seven major polishings, they spent more than 200 hours polishing and eventually buffing the ocean areas to a bright luster.

"Craig became a fixture — a legend — in the Crabtree Building," Burke said. "He began every morning before 8 a.m. The whining sound of his drill could be heard throughout the lower floors of the building. He sanded all day and into the night. There was always a heap of mangled sandpaper around him."

The day before graduation ceremonies in August, "When my parents arrived from Butte, Mont.," said Burke, "I got them involved in polishing.

"As happy as I was to graduate, it was nothing compared to the satisfaction of finishing the sphere," he said. "We easily spent thousands of hours on the time capsule."

The titanium sphere has been delivered to the general Sunday School presidency and is expected to be on display during October general conference. It will be sealed later this year with artifacts representing the various areas of the Church.

"We expect this time capsule to stand for the next 50 years — and longer — as a bright and enduring reminder that this is the Lord's Church, and this was our effort to fulfill the His mandate to 'preach the gospel' to all the world, " said Elder Hillam.