The Man Who Picked Victorian London's Unpickable Lock

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“Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair.” These were the words used to describe the locks of Jeremiah Chubb, an iron worker in 19th-century London who was renowned for his Detector, a security lock that was thought to be virtually impregnable. The prying tips of picking tools would trigger the bolt in such a way that even the conventional key would no longer be able to open it. Upon trying—and failing—to open the lock, the owner would realize it had been tampered with (the lock could then be opened, originally by using a "regulator key," and later by turning the "true key" counterclockwise to reset it).

The Detector was one of many famous British locks of the era, an example of design and ingenuity that lock companies would promote with pride. Frequently, the companies would challenge skilled lockpickers to test their merchandise, offering a cash reward if they could circumvent the levers, trips, and other internal mechanisms. It never happened. In one instance, Chubb even conspired with authorities to arrange for an inmate to try compromising his Detector. If the prisoner could, he would be awarded with five pounds (some versions of this story say his reward would be his freedom, but that is a myth). The felon failed.

Patented in 1818, the Detector spent decades as one of England’s greatest assurances. Whatever valuables lay beyond the lock were guaranteed to remain safe and secure, immune to even the most sophisticated or skilled attempts at a breach.

In 1851, an American locksmith named Alfred C. Hobbs crossed the Atlantic, stepped into the throngs of industrial suppliers and media at the Great Exhibition in London, and announced that the Chubb lock was merely a plaything. In front of astonished onlookers, Hobbs picked the lock in 25 minutes. Asked to do it a second time, he succeeded—this time in just seven minutes. In moments, the American had become the Houdini of the lock industry, shattering the trust of citizens who believed the Detector was beyond tampering.

Like Houdini, Hobbs knew how to monetize such amazing publicity. And like Houdini, he was determined to raise the stakes of his performances. As soon as he picked the Chubb lock, Hobbs declared his next target was the Bramah—a lock that had resisted all attempts at picking for the previous 61 years, and one so revered that women had taken to wearing its key around their necks as a status symbol.

Thanks to Hobbs, that adoration would shortly turn to paranoia.

In an era where nothing—credit card numbers, data, or personal belongings—can truly be considered safe, it’s hard to imagine a time when people invested complete confidence in security. But that was the case in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the concept of “perfect security” didn’t allow for any concern over valuables being compromised. Safes and lock boxes could, of course, be stolen wholesale, and perhaps smashed into submission, but the locks themselves were perceived as impenetrable. A growing middle-class populating England's cities had started to embrace the idea that spending money on a quality lock was almost as good as posting an armed guard.

It was a good time for Joseph Bramah to get into the business. Born in Yorkshire in April 1749, Bramah initially seemed destined to carry on his father’s farming labors, but a leg injury at the age of 16 had him backing away from hard manual labor to take up an apprenticeship in cabinet making. Soon he moved to London, where he began installing water closets—essentially indoor toilets—for upper-class clientele while attending lectures on locksmithing. In 1784, he introduced the Bramah Safety Lock while setting up his own Bramah Lock Company.

At the time, English locksmiths were partial to boastful displays and “rivalries,” which were perpetuated to stir interest on the part of the press. While most high-quality locks were considered virtually pick-proof, companies tried to stand out by demonstrating the struggles burglars might have in trying to compromise their product. Grandstand challenges were common, and companies tried to introduce new components that would further resist tampering. All high-end locks did mainly the same thing, but bells and whistles could perhaps persuade consumers to choose one brand over another.

In 1790, Bramah placed the 4-inch wide, 1.5-inch thick Bramah Safety Lock in the window of his workshop in the Piccadilly area of London’s West End. Stamped below the sturdy, cast-iron construct was a message:

"The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced. Applications in writing only."

Despite many challengers, Bramah was never called upon to produce those funds, which would be about $28,000 in today’s dollars. He died in 1814 in the knowledge that his lock would remain in the shop window as testament to his engineering prowess. What he couldn’t have known was that the man who would eventually overcome his challenge was then a 2-year-old living in Boston.

The famous Bramah lock sits on display
Ben Dalton, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

A.C. Hobbs was born in 1812, and arrived to the lock industry after stints in glass-cutting and doorknob design. At the age of 28, he obtained a position as a lock salesman for the Day & Newell company, which borrowed the London tradition of selling locks by making a show out of compromising the competition. Hobbs would visit bank managers and, armed with his lock-picking instruments, produce an alarming click, proving their security was under par. His Day & Newell locks, he promised, would never bend so easily, having a hood over the keyhole that made visibility for pickers difficult.

In 1851, Day & Newell sent their marquee salesman to London’s Great Exhibition. The goal was to make quick work of England’s most respected locks—the Chubb and the Bramah—and then offer a more secure alternative. Hobbs crossed the Atlantic on a boat with a suitcase full of criminal implements and a letter from New York’s chief of police endorsing his good citizenship.

Arriving in England, Hobbs immediately caused a stir by declaring that his locks were unpickable. Having captured people's attention, he produced the open Chubb lock, once for press and a second time for a panel of arbitrators who independently confirmed his feat.

That panel would oversee his attempt at the Bramah, which Hobbs had submitted a request to handle in June 1851. The Bramah Lock Company, now operated by Bramah’s relatives, agreed, and a playing field was decided: Hobbs would be given room and board in an apartment above the shop for a period of one month, where he would have access to the lock. To make sure the Bramah Company didn’t complicate matters while he was taking a break, Hobbs shielded the lock with an iron cover.

After nearly 30 days, Hobbs emerged from the dwelling with ample pride and one picked Bramah lock. It had taken him 51 hours of work spread over 16 days, but he had succeeded in trumping 67 years of boasting.

The arbitration panel examined the lock and used the original key to open it, confirming Hobbs hadn’t damaged the keyhole in the process. The Bramah staff was less enthused, claiming Hobbs had used excessive force, bending pins and levers inside in a violent breach of security. But there were no rules about gracefulness. Hobbs had topped the Bramah/Chubbs hierarchy. And in doing so, he ushered in a new era of paranoia. Now absent an unpickable lock, England was suddenly feeling very insecure.

In their scramble to soothe the fears of everyone who owned a Bramah, both the locksmith and the press pointed out that the lock had been compromised only after weeks of diligent tinkering by a highly-skilled challenger. The conditions were highly favorable, they argued, but in the real world, anyone with actual malice or theft in mind would not be granted such lenience.

As predicted, Hobbs benefited greatly from his feats. Caught up in the hysteria, the Bank of England swapped their Bramahs and Chubbs for American locks. Breaking from Day & Newell, Hobbs’s folk hero celebrity allowed him to open his own lock business in the UK, joining the lock arms race that has continued more or less unabated to this day.

The Bramah Lock Company is still in operation, having survived what observers at the time feared would become a lockless society. Writing of the Bramah breach in 1851, Living Age magazine wondered what would become of a population that could no longer rely upon locks to protect their material goods: “The best substitute for the lock on the safe," the author wrote, "is honesty in the heart.”

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

11 Famous People Who Once Had Paper Routes

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fillyfolly, iStock

As publications evolve, so do their methods of distribution. Between the rise of suburbs and the fall of afternoon daily newspapers, many countries teemed with youthful paperboys and papergirls. But thanks to shifting trends, most print media deliverers are now adults. This year, October 13 is International Newspaper Carrier Day, and we're taking a look at some of the most influential people who’ve ever worked a paper route, including a vice president, an astronaut, a supermodel, and the star of Risky Business. "Read all about 'em!"

1. WALT DISNEY

American animator and producer Walt Disney in 1946.
Keystone, Getty Images

"When I was 9, my brother Roy and I were already businessmen," Walt Disney reminisced of his childhood. In July 1911, their father, Elias, acquired a sizable newspaper delivery route from the Kansas City Star. Although this route officially belonged to Roy, Elias took charge of its operation. Together, Walt, Roy, and Elias Disney were responsible for delivering the Star's afternoon and Sunday editions to over 600 customers. And that was only part of the Disney trio's workload: Every morning, they'd dole out around 700 copies of the Kansas City Times.

Disney kept distributing KC newspapers until he was 15 years old. To hit all the houses on his itinerary before school started, the animator-to-be would wake up at 3:30 a.m. and usually work until 6 a.m. He'd then retrace his steps after classes ended. "During the winter months," Disney noted, "it was always dark and bitter cold [in the morning] … many times, I had to plow through three feet of freshly fallen snow, breaking my own path as I went.”

2. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Martin Luther King, Jr talking with someone.
Reg Lancaster, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Growing up, King earned spending money by working as a paperboy for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He landed the gig with some help from his father and frequently used his newspaper funds to purchase books. At age 13, the future Civil Rights hero became the youngest person to assistant manage one of the AJC's delivery stations. Four years later, King—then a sophomore—wrote a passionate letter to the editor of the same publication condemning the historic mistreatment of African Americans. His father would subsequently write that he had "no intimation of [King, Jr.'s] developing greatness" until the publication of said letter, "which received widespread and favorable comment."

3. JOE BIDEN

Joe Biden giving a speech.
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

America's 47th vice president used a childhood paper route to hone his people skills—and work on his speech mechanics. Biden had a noticeable stutter as a boy (some classmates in a prep school Latin course took to calling him "Joe Impedimenta"). In 1955, his family relocated to Mayfield, Delaware, and Biden got himself a paper route shortly thereafter. The job presented him with a lingual challenge at first. "I lived in dread of Saturday mornings when I had to go collect [money] from people I was just getting to know," Biden has said. To make small talk with his assigned subscribers go smoothly, young Biden "learned to anticipate the conversation to come." Then he'd rehearse some sentences that might prove useful in the discussion.

"My next-door neighbor was a big Yankees fan, and I'd always check the Yankee box score, because I knew he'd ask, and I knew I'd have to say something [about the team] without making a fool of myself," Biden recalled in his autobiography. "I had played out the entire conversation before he opened his front door."

4. EARL "THE PEARL" MONROE

Former professional basketball player Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe in 2015.
Mike Coppola, Getty Images

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990, Monroe was a prolific scorer who spent 13 seasons in the NBA and helped the New York Knicks win their most recent world championship in 1973. (His number, 15, has been retired by the team and now hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden.) A native Philadelphian, Monroe entered the newspaper carrier game with some parental help. "In junior high, I had a paper route that my mother [Rose] and I built up until it was profitable," wrote Monroe in his autobiography. On deliveries, the teen would often be accompanied by his mom. "[She] did everything to help me when I was growing up," Monroe said. "She really didn't want me being out there by myself."

5. KATHY IRELAND

Model Kathy Ireland at a fashion show in 2018.
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images for AHA

Kathy Ireland was one of the most recognizable supermodels of the 1980s, posing for Sports Illustrated on several occasions before launching what turned into a global licensing company valued at $2 billion. Her success in the business world was foreshadowed by a historic newspaper-delivering stint. Ireland was raised in Santa Barbara, California, where—at age 4—she used to sell hand-painted rocks. When she was about 10, an advertisement calling for new paperboys appeared in one of the local newspapers. "Are you the boy for the job?" it asked. Young Ireland responded by writing a pointed letter to the editor. "No, I'm not the boy for the job, I'm the girl for the job, and I can do it just as well as any boy," she declared. "I think I deserve a chance." And she got one: Ireland became Santa Barbara's first-ever papergirl. By the time she retired from that gig, the budding mogul had made 120,000 newspaper deliveries and was voted her district's carrier of the year for three consecutive years.

6. ALAN BEAN

Former astronaut Alan Bean signs his photo in 2006.
David Livingston, Getty Images

As the lunar module pilot of NASA's Apollo 12 mission, the late Alan Bean became the fourth person to walk on the moon in 1969. He also spent 59 days orbiting Earth during a 1973 Skylab excursion and had a celebrated artistic career as well. A Texan by birth, Bean spent much of his youth delivering papers for his hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "My first route was in the early mornings," Bean recalled. "Every day was the same. I pulled myself out of my warm bed and pedaled up and down the dark streets on my bicycle, loaded with folded-up newspapers. It was a lonely job, too—it seemed as if there were no one else in the whole world." Poignant words coming from an astronaut …

7. BOB HOPE

Bob Hope playing golf in England, circa 1965.
Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Long before he became synonymous with Hollywood road comedies, Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope was helping to support his family as a Cleveland paperboy. He later returned to the job while struggling to break into the entertainment industry. "At 8, I had a paper route. At 12, I worked in my brother's butcher shop. At 18, I was out on the road singing and dancing and at 19, I was back on my paper route," Hope wryly noted.

Selling newspapers from street corners was another revenue stream for the aspiring performer. While working at his stand on 102nd Street in Cleveland, Hope managed to brush shoulders with the highest of high-rollers. "I had one regular customer whose name I didn't know; all I knew was that he snapped his face open and shut like a wrinkled old coin purse," explained the comedian. One day, the mystery patron needed change for a dime, so Hope ran across the street to procure some pennies from a local department store. According to Hope, "When I came back, my customer said, 'Young man, I’m going to give you some advice. If you want to succeed in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep the change on hand. That way, you won't miss any customers while you're going for it."

A few moments later, a passing inspector came up to the stand and asked, "Do you know who that man was?" "No," replied Hope. "He's only the richest man in the world,'" announced the inspector. "That's John D. Rockefeller, Senior."

8. JAMES A. MICHENER

James Michener wearing a flower necklace.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The author of over 40 books which together sold upwards of 75 million copies, Michener is best remembered for Tales of the South Pacific. Inspired by his service in the United States Navy, the novel won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted into the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. But long before his travels, a young Michener was an enthusiastic paperboy from seventh through twelfth grade. Working in his childhood home of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Michener distributed various Philadelphia-based newspapers along five different routes. "I can still remember the residents of certain entire streets that I had served the longest," he wrote in 1992. "My paper routes gave me an insight into the complexity of life in a small town that not many boys acquired."

9. TOM CRUISE

Tom Cruise leaning against a wall.
Carlo Allegri, Getty Images

Raised in a less-than-affluent household, Cruise turned to newspaper-carrying as a means of picking up extra cash. (He also raked lawns and put in some time at an ice cream parlor.) "When I was 13," the actor told Sports Illustrated, "I had a paper route and paid $50 for my first go-cart, $75 for my first motorcycle." To help meet his delivery schedule, Cruise enlisted the aid of his younger sister, Cass. "I always told her I'd pay her back. I bought her a car after Risky Business."

10. WARREN BUFFETT

Warren Buffett giving a talk.
Paul Morigi, Getty Images for Fortune/Time Inc

He's the third-richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $91.5 billion, and Buffett's remarkable investment acumen has earned the Nebraskan the nickname "Oracle of Omaha." But the self-made billionaire got his start distributing newspapers on behalf of the Washington Post and other publications. "You had to deliver [them] every day, including Christmas Day," Buffett has said, adding that on Christmas morning, his "family would have to wait until I had done my paper route" before the festivities could start. At age 14, Buffett filed his first tax return, which reported that in 1944 he'd earned the equivalent of $8221 in modern U.S. dollars. And, given the nature of his job, the youngster knew he was able to write off the cost of his watch and various bicycle repairs as business expenses.

11. DAVID LYNCH

David Lynch seated in a large yellow chair.
TIZIANA FABI, AFP/Getty Images

Auteur director David Lynch was so low on personal funds during the production of Eraserhead (1977) that he needed a couple of side hustles to make ends meet. In addition to working a part-time plumbing job, Lynch delivered copies of The Wall Street Journal. "I built three sheds in my back yard during that period," he claims. "They were made out of wood I found on my paper route. My route took me through two different trash areas. On trash nights, my route would take two hours instead of one because I stopped and sorted through the garbage." Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

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