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[ISN] The American Who Shocked Victorian England by Picking the World's Strongest Lock


By Tom Vanderbilt
March 11, 2013

On July 22, 1851, on a day when a visitor to London had any number of amusements at his disposalâfrom M. Gompertzâs Giant Panorama (âincluding a new diorama of intense interestâ) at the Parthenium Rooms on St. Martinâs Lane, to the âReal Darkies from the Southâ (replete with âthe Sayings and Doings and Lights and Shadows of the Ethiopian raceâ) appearing at Gothic Hallâa group of men assembled in a small room in Westminster.

They were drawn by a curious invitation: âTo witness an attempt to open a lock throwing three bolts, and having six tumblers, affixed to the iron door of a strong room.â The men gathered around the door to a vault, once the repository of records for the South-Eastern Railway. At their center was an unassuming figure, an American named Alfred C. Hobbs, clad in waistcoat and collar. At 11:35 a.m., Hobbs produced a few small tools from his pocketââa description of which, for obvious reasons, we fear to giveâ a correspondent for the Times wroteâand turned his attention to the vaultâs lock. His heavy brows knitted, Hobbsâ hands flitted about the lock with a faint metallic scratching. Twenty-five minutes later, it opened with a sharp click. Amid the excited murmur, the witnesses asked Hobbs to repeat the task. Having relocked the vault, he once again set upon it with deft economy. The vault opened âin the short space of seven minutes,â as the witnesses would testify, âwithout the slightest injury to the lock or the door.â

The lock was known as the âDetector,â and it needed no introduction. Indeed, since its patenting in 1818 by Jeremiah Chubb, a Portsmouth ironmonger, it had become one of the countryâs most popular locks, advertised in the Bleak House serials and enshrined in magazine doggerel: âMy name is Chubb, that makes the Patent Locks; Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair.â It was renowned for its impregnability, having survived any number of picking attempts; in one trial, a notorious London picklock, given a chance at a pardon if he could crack Chubbâs masterwork, testified âthat these locks were the most secure he had ever met with, and that he did not think it possible for any man to pick or open them with any false instruments whatever.â But it was also famed for its âDetector,â an anti-picking lever that tripped the bolt if any of the lockâs six standard levers were lifted too high. âIn this state the lock is what I call detected,â wrote Chubb in his patent, âand the possessor of the true key has evidence that an attempt has been made to violate the lock, because the true key will not now open it.â (If the lock had been violated, its owner could retrieve his belongings by using a âregulating keyâ that would not open the lock but rather restore it to its original, openable condition.)


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