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.”

Theodore Roosevelt: A Timeline of the 26th President's Life

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first season of our new podcast, History Vs., is all about Theodore Roosevelt: author, rancher, naturalist, and 26th president. (Make sure to subscribe if you haven't already!) As you're listening, follow along with this timeline.

Sources: Timeline of Theodore Roosevelt's Life, Library of Congress; Timeline, Theodore Roosevelt Center; Timeline, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

1855

January 18, 1855

TR's oldest sister, Anna Roosevelt, a.k.a. Bamie or Bye, is born.

1858

October 27, 1858

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. is born to Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (Thee) and Martha Bulloch Roosevelt (Mittie) at 28 E. 20th Street in New York City.

1860

February 28, 1860

TR's brother, Elliott Roosevelt, is born.

1861

September 27, 1861

TR's sister, Corinne Roosevelt, is born.

1865

April 25, 1865

Theodore and Elliott watch Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession from the window of their grandfather’s New York City mansion.

1869

May 1869

The Roosevelt family—including the kids, Anna (Bamie or Bye), Theodore, Elliott, and Corinne—take a trip to Europe.

1870

March 1870

The Roosevelts return from their trip abroad.

Thee issues a challenge to his son to build his body; Theodore accepts and gets to work.

Thee helps found the American Museum of Natural History.

TR begins "The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History."

1871

TR receives his first pair of glasses.

1872

The Roosevelts travel to Egypt and the Holy Land.

TR receives a gun for his 14th birthday.

1873

Theodore, Elliott, and Corrine live with a family in Dresden, Germany, for five months.

November 5, 1873

The Roosevelts return home to New York.

1874

The Roosevelts spend their first summer in Oyster Bay, the future location of TR's Sagamore Hill Estate.

1876

Theodore enters Harvard.

1877

President Rutherford B. Hayes nominates Thee for the position of Collector of Customs to the Port of New York. The Senate rejects the nomination.

July 1877

TR writes The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks.

1878

February 9, 1878

Thee dies of stomach cancer.

September 7, 1878

Roosevelt spends time with Bill Sewall in Maine.

October 18, 1878

Theodore meets Alice Hathaway Lee, his future wife.

1880

June 30, 1880

Theodore graduates from Harvard (magna cum laude).

October 27, 1880

Theodore marries Alice Hathaway Lee (whose nickname is “Sunshine”) on his 22nd birthday.

December 1880

Theodore enters law school at Columbia. (He later drops out.)

1881

August 1881

Roosevelt summits the Matterhorn while honeymooning with Alice.

November 9, 1881

Theodore is elected to the New York State Assembly, representing the 21st district.

1882

TR’s first book, The Naval War of 1812, is published.

August 1882

TR joins the National Guard; is a second lieutenant.

1883

January 1, 1883

TR is elected Speaker of the Republican Assembly.

September 1883

Theodore travels to the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison and purchases a stake in a ranch there.

November 1883

TR is re-elected to the NY State assembly.

1884

February 12, 1884

Alice gives birth to a healthy baby girl and names her Alice Lee.

February 14, 1884

Mittie dies of typhoid fever; a few hours later, Alice Hathaway Lee dies of Bright’s disease.

February 16, 1884

Alice and Mittie have a double funeral and are buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

February 17, 1884

TR and Alice’s daughter is christened.

March 1884

TR commissions a home to be built in Long Island for his daughter Alice; it will become Sagamore Hill.

June 1884

Roosevelt serves as a delegate at the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Late 1884

TR sells his home in New York City and leaves for the Dakotas, leaving Alice—whom he calls “Baby Lee”—in the care of his oldest sister, Bamie. He establishes Elkhorn Ranch in the Dakotas.

October 1884

TR briefly returns to New York to work on the Blaine presidential campaign; heads back to Elkhorn in November.

December 1884

TR helps to organize the Little Missouri River Stockmen’s Association, but returns to New York for Christmas.

1885

March 1885

TR’s book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, is published.

April 1885

Returns to the Dakotas; has a bar fight in Mingusville (now Wibaux, Montana).

May 1885

Participates in the spring cattle roundup, which lasts 32 days.

June 1885

Returns to New York, where Sagamore Hill is completed.

November 1885

Secretly begins courting his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow.

1886

TR becomes secretly engaged to Edith, after which he returns to the Badlands.

Spring 1886

Roosevelt, along with Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, pursue—and apprehend—three thieves who had stolen TR's boat from his Elkhorn Ranch. After he caught the bandits, he marched them overland, though extremely rugged areas, to face justice in Dickinson, North Dakota.

September 1886

TR returns to New York.

TR is nominated for mayor of New York on the Republican ticket, but later loses the election to Abram S. Hewitt.

December 2, 1886

TR and Edith marry in London.

A terrible winter—one of the worst in recorded history—begins in the Dakotas.

1887

March 1887

TR and Edith return to New York after their European honeymoon.

TR’s book on Thomas Hart Benton is published.

April 1887

TR visits the Dakotas to determine how much cattle he lost over the winter; half of his herd is gone. He begins to sell off his interests.

May 1887

Baby Alice comes to live with TR and Edith in Sagamore Hill.

September 13, 1887

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Ted) is born.

1888

Three books of TR’s are published: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, Gouverneur Morris, and Essays on Practical Politics.

1889

May 1889

Roosevelt is appointed to the Civil Service Commission and moves to Washington, D.C.

The first two volumes of TR’s four-volume series, The Winning of the West, are published.

October 10, 1889

Kermit Roosevelt, TR and Edith’s second child, is born.

1891

August 13, 1891

Ethel Carow, TR and Edith’s third child, is born.

1893

The Wilderness Hunter is published.

1894

The third volume of The Winning of the West is published.

April 10, 1894

Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt, TR and Edith’s fourth child, is born.

August 14, 1894

TR's brother, Elliott, dies.

1895

TR and Henry Cabot Lodge’s book, Hero Tales from American History, is published.

TR accepts a position on New York City’s board of police commissioners.

June 23, 1895

TR deploys 2000 officers to enforce the Excise Law in saloons across New York.

September 1895

Thirty thousand mostly German or German-Americans parade down Lexington Avenue to oppose TR’s enforcement of the Excise Law.

1896

The fourth volume of The Winning of the West is published.

1897

American Ideals and Some American Game are published.

April 1897

President William McKinley appoints TR Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy.

November 19, 1897

Quentin Roosevelt, TR and Edith’s fifth child, is born.

1898

May 1898

T. R. resigns his post as assistant secretary of the Navy to fight in the Spanish-American War. He is lieutenant colonel of the first U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment to fight in the war.

June 22, 1898

T.R. and the Rough Riders land in Cuba.

June 30, 1898

TR is given command of the Rough Riders and is made a colonel.

July 1, 1898

TR and the Rough Riders charge up Kettle Hill.

August 15, 1898

The Rough Riders come back to New York and are quarantined in Montauk.

November 8, 1898

TR is elected governor of New York.

1899

TR’s book The Rough Riders is published.

1900

TR publishes two books: A biography of Oliver Cromwell and The Strenuous Life.

November 1900

William McKinley is elected for a second term; TR is his vice president.

1901

March 4, 1901

McKinley and TR are inaugurated.

September 6, 1901

President William McKinley is shot in Buffalo, New York.

September 14, 1901

McKinley dies after being shot; TR is sworn in as president in Buffalo, New York.

October 16, 1901

Booker T. Washington dines with TR and his family in the White House. It was the first time a black person had eaten at the same table as a president, and it caused a scandal.

1902

February 18, 1902

TR orders the Justice Department to bring an anti-trust suit against Northern Securities; the court rules in 1904 that Northern Securities must dissolve.

May 1902

TR authorizes the creation of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

September 3, 1902

TR bruises his leg in a carriage accident and develops an infection that would lead to emergency surgery.

October 1902

TR mediates a labor dispute between mine workers and the coal industry, threatening to send troops to take over the mines if a resolution isn’t reached. (Thankfully, one is.)

November 14, 1902

Roosevelt goes on a hunting trip in Mississippi, where he refuses to shoot a bear tied to a tree. The event leads to the creation of the Teddy Bear.

December 1902

The president tells Germany that the United States will take action if Germany invades Venezuela to collect on debts. Later, he helps settle the dispute.

1903

March 14, 1903

Via an executive order, TR establishes Pelican Island in Florida, a bird reservation and the first time the government set aside land devoted to protecting wildlife.

May 1903

TR and John Muir go camping in Yosemite.

November 18, 1903

Panama Canal Treaty is signed.

1904

November 8, 1904

TR wins his reelection bid for president, defeating Democratic nominee Alton B. Parker by a wide margin. Roosevelt had 336 electoral votes to Parker’s 140.

December 6, 1904

Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

1905

February 1, 1905

TR signs the act that facilitates the creation of the National Forest Service.

March 4, 1905

TR’s second presidential inauguration ceremony is held.

March 17, 1905

TR attends the wedding of his niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

June 2, 1905

TR creates the first federal game preserve in Wichita Forest, Oklahoma.

July 8, 1905

TR’s daughter Alice sets sail for Asia with Taft and other diplomatic delegates.

August 9, 1905

TR publishes Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter.

August 25, 1905

TR takes a ride in the USS Plunger off Long Island.

August 29, 1905

TR’s attempts to mediate talks between Russia and Japan to bring peace between the two countries are successful.

September 5, 1905

Signing of the Portsmouth Treaty, which ends the Russo-Japanese War.

1906

January 1906

TR brokers successful talks between Germany and France over their respective influence in Morocco.

February 17, 1906

TR’s daughter Alice marries Republican Congressman Nicholas Longworth on the White House lawn.

June 8, 1906

TR signs the Antiquities Act.

June 30, 1906

TR’s push to regulate the meatpacking and food industries culminates with the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which oversee quality standards for consumer goods.

August 1906

TR dishonorably discharges a regiment of black soldiers accused of killing a white bartender and wounding a white police officer in Brownsville, Texas. An investigation later revealed they had likely been framed and 14 men were allowed to reenlist.

November 1906

TR becomes the first president to travel to a foreign country while in office, visiting Panama to check on the construction of the Panama Canal.

December 1906

TR wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the conflict between Russia and Japan. He is the first American to win a Nobel Prize of any kind.

1907

TR publishes Good Hunting.

January 1, 1907

TR sets a world record when he shakes 8513 hands.

December 16, 1907

TR’s notion to impress the rest of the world with military power results in the Great White Fleet, a naval spectacle with 16 ships and 14,000 sailors that spends the next 14 months touring the globe.

1908

January 11, 1908

TR designates the Grand Canyon in Arizona as a National Monument.

June, 1908

After TR decides not to pursue a third term, the Republican party nominates William Howard Taft as their presidential candidate.

1909

March 1909

TR joins the editorial staff of the small weekly news magazine The Outlook.

Roosevelt leaves the White House as William Howard Taft is sworn in as president.

April 1909

Roosevelt begins a yearlong safari in Mombasa in British East Africa accompanied by his son Kermit. By the end of the expedition, he has killed 296 animals.

April 1909

Roosevelt publishes Outlook Editorials.

1910

March 1910

TR publishes African Game Trails, American Problems, The New Nationalism, and African and European Addresses.

March 1910

TR embarks on a tour of Europe, including Budapest, Paris, and Brussels.

August 1910

TR visits 16 states on a speaking tour to promote his New Nationalism, which argues against special privileges for businesses in government and advocates equal rights for all citizens.

December 1910

Roosevelt travels to Norway to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.

1911

October 27, 1911

William Howard Taft’s Justice Department accuses J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel of violating the Sherman Act, breaking TR’s promise to Morgan that U.S. Steel wouldn’t be prosecuted.

1912

February 1912

TR throws his hat in the ring, announcing that he's running for president as a Republican.

June 1912

Republicans nominate incumbent President William Howard Taft as their party candidate.

August 5, 1912

The new National Progressive party, which is nicknamed the “Bull Moose” party, makes its official debut at a convention in Chicago.

August 7, 1912

TR is nominated to be the National Progressive party’s candidate for president.

October 14, 1912

John Schrank shoots TR in the chest when he comes to Milwaukee to deliver a campaign speech. Roosevelt finishes the speech before seeking medical treatment.

November 1912

TR receives the largest number of votes of any third-party candidate, but loses the presidential election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

1913

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography, History as Literature and Other Essays, and Progressive Principles are published.

October 1913

TR travels to South America for lecture tour.

Late 1913

TR sets off on a harrowing expedition to chart the River of Doubt in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest; the first part of the expedition takes place over land.

1914

February 27, 1914

The expedition starts down the River of Doubt.

April 1914

TR completes the journey in the Amazon and the river is dubbed Rio Roosevelt or Rio Teodoro after him.

May 1914

Roosevelt returns home to New York and publishes the books Through the Brazilian Wilderness and Life-Histories of African Game Animals.

September 1914

Following the start of World War I, TR calls for "a world league for the peace of righteousness," foreshadowing the League of Nations.

1915

America and the World War by Theodore Roosevelt is published.

April - May, 1915

TR is the defendant in a libel suit brought by Republican machine boss William Barnes. TR wins.

1916

TR publishes Fear God and Take Your Own Part and A Booklover’s Holidays in the Open.

1917

TR’s four sons join the military to fight in World War I, and his daughter Ethel becomes a Red Cross nurse.

May 19, 1917

Wilson refuses TR's request to take a volunteer force—the Rough Riders 2.0—to the Western front of WWI.

1918

July 14, 1918

TR’s son Quentin dies after his plane is shot down over France.

November 1918

The Great Adventure by Theodore Roosevelt is published.

TR spends more than a month in the hospital being treated for recurring abscesses.

1919

January 3, 1919

TR dictates an editorial to the Kansas City Star on the proposed League of Nations.

January 5, 1919

TR dictates an article to the Metropolitan voicing support for women’s suffrage.

January 6, 1919

Theodore Roosevelt, 60, dies in his sleep at 4:15 a.m. after a pulmonary embolism.

January 8, 1919

Theodore Roosevelt is buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay.

A Handy Map of All the Royal Residences in the UK

Frogmore House, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's primary estate on the grounds of Windsor Castle.
Frogmore House, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's primary estate on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Somewhere along the way, you probably learned that Buckingham Palace is home to the ruler of the United Kingdom and many unflinching, fancily clad guards. And, if you watch The Crown or keep a close eye on royal family news, you might recognize the names of other estates like Windsor Castle and Kensington Palace.

But what about Gatcombe Park, Llwynywermod, or any of the other royal residences? To fill in the gaps of your knowledge, UK-based money-lending site QuickQuid created a map and corresponding illustrations of all 20 properties, and compiled the need-to-know details about each place.

quickquid map of royal family residences
QuickQuid

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip kept eight estates for themselves, and divvied up the rest among their children and grandchildren, some of whom have purchased their own properties, too. Though Buckingham Palace is still considered the official residence of the Queen, she now splits most of her time between Windsor Castle and other holiday homes like Balmoral Castle in Scotland and Sandringham House, which Prince Philip is responsible for maintaining.

quickquid illustration of royal family residences
QuickQuid

Windsor shares its grounds with two other properties: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s home, Frogmore House, and the Royal Lodge, where Prince Andrew (the Queen’s second youngest child) lives.

illustration of frogmore house
QuickQuid

Southwest of Windsor is Highgrove House, Prince Charles’s official family home with wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. They also own Birkhall in Scotland, Clarence House in London, Tamarisk House on the Isles of Scilly, and the aforementioned Llwynywermod in Wales. Much like the Queen herself does, Charles and Camilla basically have a different house for each region they visit.

illustration of highgrove house
QuickQuid

In 2011, the Queen gave Anmer Hall—which is on the grounds of Sandringham House—to Prince William and Kate Middleton as a wedding gift, but they’ve recently relocated to Kensington Palace so Prince George could attend school in London.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s only daughter, Anne, resides in Gatcombe Park with her daughter, Zara Tindall. Anne also owns St. James’s Palace in London, where her niece (Princess Beatrice of York) and her mother’s cousin (Princess Alexandra) sometimes live.

Lastly there's Edward, Elizabeth and Philip's youngest son, who lives with his wife in Bagshot Park, which architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called “bad, purposeless, [and] ugly.”

illustration of bagshot park
QuickQuid

If you’re feeling particularly cramped in your tiny one-bedroom apartment (or even regular-sized house) after reading about the royal family’s overabundance of real estate, take solace in the knowledge that at least you’ll never have to follow their strict fashion rules.

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