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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.”

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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How Austrian Soldiers Saved the 1964 Olympics
Allsport Hulton/Archive
Allsport Hulton/Archive

Although the Austrian city of Innsbruck has a well-deserved reputation as a winter sports mecca, it was dangerously low on snow and ice in the weeks leading up the 1964 Winter Olympics. So the organizers called in the troops.

Austrian soldiers went to work carving 20,000 blocks of ice away from the top of the mountain and then toting them down to make luge and bobsled tracks. In order to salvage the skiing events, the soldiers had to lug 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the tops of mountains down to the slopes that had been chosen for the various races. On top of that, they brought down an extra 20,000 cubic meters just in case anything bad happened to the first batch of snow.

And oh, how something bad did happen! Ten days before the opening ceremony, it started raining. As you probably know, rain and snow aren't the closest of chums, so much of the work that had already been done on the courses melted. The Austrian army again came to the rescue, though, taking to the slopes and tamping down the remaining snow by hand and foot. Thanks to this bit of resourcefulness, the games went on as planned.

Things aren't quite that tricky today, though. Artificially produced snow made its debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but the old "bring in some outside snow" tactic isn't totally dead. When the snow forecast for the Vancouver freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue Cypress Mountain looked grim in 2010, the organizers started trucking in loads of snow from other locations. Engineers then spread the snow on top of carefully situated bales of hay to give the slopes their desired shape. (How do you get bales of hay on a ski slope? You drop them from a helicopter.)

Of course, there's such a thing as too much winter weather for the Olympics, too. Snow and rain plagued the 1998 Nagano Games and led to lengthy delays and postponements for some events.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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