The Lock Pickers

Tom Vanderbilt in Slate:

130307_CRIME_London1851.jpg.CROP.multipart2-mediumOn July 22, 1851, on a day when a visitor to London had any number of amusements at his disposal—from M. Gompertz’s Giant Panorama (“including a new diorama of intense interest”) at the Parthenium Rooms on St. Martin’s Lane, to the “Real Darkies from the South” (replete with “the Sayings and Doings and Lights and Shadows of the Ethiopian race”) appearing at Gothic Hall—a group of men assembled in a small room in Westminster.

They were drawn by a curious invitation: “To witness an attempt to open a lock throwing three bolts, and having six tumblers, affixed to the iron door of a strong room.” 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 pocket—“a description of which, for obvious reasons, we fear to give” a correspondent for the Times wrote—and turned his attention to the vault’s lock. His heavy brows knitted, Hobbs’ 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 “in the short space of seven minutes,” as the witnesses would testify, “without the slightest injury to the lock or the door.”

The lock was known as the “Detector,” and it needed no introduction. Indeed, since its patenting in 1818 by Jeremiah Chubb, a Portsmouth ironmonger, it had become one of the country’s most popular locks, advertised in the Bleak House serials and enshrined in magazine doggerel: “My name is Chubb, that makes the Patent Locks; Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair.”

More here, including more articles on lock picking.