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I’m a wealthy billionaire dying of terminal illness. The world I’m currently living in is clearly on the brink of a world ending nuclear war. I predict that the world ends next month. I am putting together a large “time capsule” of sorts, for future people in the post-apocalyptic world to use to rebuild.

I am able to use 5 billion dollars on my little project. My question is, what would be the most valuable tools/information to stock my Time Capsule with? The purpose of it is to help people reduced to about 1890s style living make their way back up to modern standards of living.

By 1890s tech, I mean industrialized production is in its infancy, most people farm, infrastructure in smaller towns is lacking, and no motorized transportation.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you clarify the "no motorized transportation" re:1890s? The 1890s is the era famous for the development of the automobile: so do you mean like the 1870s with no automobiles or diesel-powered motorships? I ask because if this is true, and therefore does not include transportation such as railroads which have been around since the steam engines of the 1810s at least, then my answer would change. $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jun 9 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Apart from the actual answer, here is a suggestion. Instead of the creating a single time capsule, better to create an array of these and put them in different locations, where each capsule has information on location of all others, also each capsule contains some essential redundant items and some specific items e.g. special capsule for literature, medicine samples (and how to make them), computer stuff, etc. $\endgroup$ – V.Aggarwal Jun 10 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ Seems like survivors would have lots of 21st century technology at hand, most of it even working for a while. There are plenty of robust, working, 1910s-1920s automobiles and aircraft lovingly preserved in many museums and remote collections. If there are survivors, then there are likely surviving machine shops and tooling. Seems like 1890s might be a bit pessimistic. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 10 at 11:52
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Unsurprisingly, some people have already put a lot of thought into this sort of problem, and come up with some quite neat ideas. I particularly like the Rosetta Disk, part of the much larger Long Now project (well worth a closer look, especially the 10000 year clock) and a prototype of their information-preserving library idea. The Rosetta Disk in particular is intended to preserve language but the technique is a general and clever one:

Rosetta Disk

The actual data needs a decent microscope to read (which is 1800s tech, certainly), but there's a lot of space on that disk and the neat design around the edge encourages closer investigation and progression in microscope technology. It can be combined with an even higher density storage format that might need an electron microscope to read (scanning electron microscopes are 1940s tech, incidentally). The lowest resolution methods store 5000+ pages on a disk, both text and images. Optical reading techniques get you a maximum density of about 180000 pages per disk. Electron microscopy could get you vastly more than that. For reference, the last print edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was a little shy of 33000 pages.

Etch you a whole bunch of these with different contents, and maybe provide some suitable optical equipment to get people started (or at least, simpler and more robust gear that might help them male a suitable microscope). Oh, and stash them in more than one place, to increase the chance it might be found and some idiots won't just break them.

The problem you face is that what you need to preserve is everything, because modern society and technology is deeply interwoven and built upon our previous discoveries and inventions and experiences that teasing any one thread out is all but futile.

My personal target would be something like antibiotics, because that leads you to generally survivable surgery which is a huge step towards improving life and lifetimes for everyone. Problem is that there's so much chemistry and biology required to build you up to that point, and so much engineering required to design the equipment to brew up the stuff, and so much metallurgy and plastics production needed to make the gear that you have to provide instructions on all that as well or you'll have accomplished nothing of use.

So, there you go. Most valuable information? All of it.

But don't forget to include instructions on how to read it.

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I think the two most important pieces of knowledge to preserve are midwifery and reading/writing. And if you want to call that three things, fine.

With these two pieces of knowledge widely available to the remaining populace you can ensure that the human race can continue on and they have the capacity to learn and record and share knowledge with each other.

Human beings banged around this planet for 50K years at the same basic subsistence level of poverty. Then, 3K years ago when we learned how to read and write (doesn’t matter if it was aliens from Tau-Ceti Prime that explained it to us or if we figured it out on our own) and we rocketed to nuclear power driving Ipods and Cloud based AI overlords.

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As a matter of fact, I suggest in this case reading a story: Earth Abides by George R Stewart. A short synopsis of the book can be found in an Extra Credit's talk.

Basically, the story explores how the knowledge that made the world before the fall run - all the high technology - has become mainly obslete by the fall as it does no longer provide a benefit for the survivors in contrast to more rural and basic survival skills and knowledge.

Society after a nuclear war will be back to about a late medieval ages, at best a renaissance, level of technology, only in some pockets in the early modern age. While the knowledge might survive in the shape of libraries or time capsules, the post-fall society will not benefit from this knowledge as it is not ready for it (anymore). However, a time capsule will not be totally in vain: preserving knowledge over this dark age in some kind of time capsule will give later generations - once they are ready for it (again) - a headstart with the new-old technology.

Contents of the time capsule

Now, what shall we put in the time capsule? First of all, it needs to be sturdy enough to survive a nuclear war and some maybe 100 years to allow society to come to terms with itself again and then another 100 to be ready to advance again. This rules out pulp-paper and microfilm for the contents but demands acid-free paper or metal engraved information in a method that can withstand the ages of time. It also has to allow deciphering the information even as the language has massively changed after these 6-8 generations. Maybe metal engraved slabs might do the trick, and writing it down in at least two, better three languages akin to the Rosetta stone might help.

One of these languages should be Math, and at least one portion of the capsule should be dedicated to mathematics, starting with the numerals and basic geometry, which allows to easily build a dictionary to transmit basic ideas.

Basic architecture (as in the design of the arch etc) should be another thing that can be easily used in the front portion of the time capsule, as it can be graphically shown and explained, making it also a good part to teach Ye olde language. Starting from there basic concepts of biology (Mendel) and physics (Kinematics) might follow, then spreading out into fields like practical chemistry (gunpowder) and engineering (how to cast steel)

I would advise against packing tools and instruments - a society develops always the tools it needs to survive. If it can't fabricate a tool it benefits from, it doesn't need it and is not ripe for it. It would be a waste of resources.

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It's easy to say "Wikipedia" and leave it at that (no offense to that great answer), but I'll give you one specific thing that your people need or everything else is a non-starter:

Precision machining technology (and thus precision metrology)

Precision machining techniques give you precision metrology. Without precision metrology, you really can't do much of anything that we do today: Any but the most basic kinds of aerospace (and by proxy, anything in space), nuclear (weapons, energy, etc), microprocessors, long-distance power transmission, utilization of RF spectrum above e.g. HF/VHF/UHF. All of these things require precision metrology, no exceptions, and you can't get precision measuring devices without the precision machining techniques. That's really the "shoulders of giants" that many of the advances of the 20th century were standing upon. Even if you did a one-off job for your calipers and micrometer (or whatever), if you expect to bring the rest of your society up to today's standard, you absolutely cannot reasonably expect to do this without the precision machining and metrology technology itself and not simply the tools. So this implies not only the mechanical engineering techniques, but also a metallurgical component. This is what allows you to mass-manufacture things with precision, such that your bearings made in Pennsylvania will fit your engine blocks forged in Detroit (and with such high precision that five hundred thousand of them can be made to fit perfectly into planes to assert your technical and industrial dominance on the rest of the world, but I digress). As a side note, Bell Labs produced a series of books about the things they made, and they are amazing and will assuage whatever doubts you have about the perspicuousness of this suggestion.

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