The Man Who Picked Victorian London's Unpickable Lock

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iStock

“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.

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.”

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

25 Facts About Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s Wedding

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STR/AFP/Getty Images

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on Wednesday, July 29, 1981. The ceremony was one of the decade’s biggest events—and for good reason. Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest son Charles was (and still is, of course) first in line to the throne, which made the day a landmark moment in the life of the presumptive future King of England.

With the early days of Charles and Diana’s relationship now immortalized in Netflix’s The Crown, here are some more facts and figures behind one of the 20th century’s most famous relationships.

1. Prince Charles met Diana while he was dating her sister.

Prince Charles and Sarah Spencer (right, facing camera) on the sidelines after he played in an international polo match, July 1977. Dennis Oulds/Central Press, Getty Images

Charles was romantically involved with Diana’s elder sister, Sarah Spencer (now Lady Sarah McCorquodale) when he first met his future bride-to-be. His and Sarah’s relationship wasn’t quite as harmonious as it’s portrayed in The Crown; Sarah later said that she wouldn’t marry Charles whether “he were the dustman or the King of England." Nevertheless, it’s through Sarah that Charles was first introduced to Diana while on a grouse hunt at Althorp House, the Spencer family's ancestral home, in 1977. Diana was just 16 at the time—six years younger than Sarah, and more than 12 years younger than Charles.

2. It was love at first sight for Charles and Diana …

Charles seems to have taken an immediate shine to Diana, telling The Daily Telegraph in 1981 that he remembered thinking, “what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was” after they first met. For her part, Diana reportedly told friends that she was destined to marry Charles after her first encounter with him—adding (not so prophetically) that “he’s the one man on the planet who’s not allowed to divorce me.” (Divorce laws for royals used to be a lot more stringent than they are today, and weren’t fully relaxed until 2002.)

3. … or maybe it wasn’t love at first sight for Charles and Diana.

Long after their relationship had broken down, Diana revisited her first impression of Charles—this time with the benefit of hindsight. In 1992, she told her biographer Andrew Morton that her actual first thought after meeting the future king was, “God, what a sad man.” Ouch.

4. It took a while for things to get going between Charles and Diana.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No matter what their first impressions were, it took a long time for Charles and Diana to become a couple. It wasn’t until 1980, shortly before Diana’s 19th birthday, that the couple finally got together. In the three years in between, Charles’s relationship with Sarah Spencer fizzled out, after which he reportedly proposed to Amanda Knatchbull, the granddaughter of Earl Mountbatten, his mentor. Knatchbull turned him down.

At the same time, rumors began swirling that Charles was still romantically involved with his long-term sweetheart Camilla Shand, despite her having married Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973. (Camilla is now the Duchess of Cornwall, Charles's second wife. The couple tied the knot in 2005.)

Charles had, in fact, intended to propose to Camilla years earlier, but their relationship crumbled when the royal family allegedly deemed her an unsuitable match for the heir to the throne.

5. Prince Charles’s schedule often got in the way of his courtship with Diana.

The problem with being heir to the world’s most powerful monarchy is that it doesn’t leave you a lot of time for romance. Reportedly, Charles and Diana only met in person, at most, 13 times before Charles proposed on February 3, 1981.

6. Charles did get down on one knee when he proposed to Diana.

Charles proposed to Diana in the nursery of Windsor Castle. Unlike what is stated in The Crown, Charles apparently did get down on one knee to ask for Diana's hand. (Also unlike The Crown, Diana’s immediate reaction was apparently to laugh.) The engagement was kept a secret for three weeks while arrangements for an official announcement were made; their betrothal wasn’t made public until February 24, 1981.

7. Diana picked out her own engagement ring (and it’s still in the family).

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge in 2014.Ricky Wilson, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Charles didn’t pick out a ring for Diana; rather, Diana picked her own from a selection made by Garrard & Co., the official Jewelers to the Crown, The ring she chose—an 18-carat white gold band featuring a Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds—is now worn by Prince William’s wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. Nevertheless, it proved a controversial choice: because the ring came from the Garrard’s public catalogue, it wasn’t a unique bespoke design which many in the royal family believed would have been more suitable.

8. Charles and Diana’s wedding was hastily arranged.

Charles and Diana had only been dating for around six months by the time Charles popped the question in February 1981, and it took barely another five months to arrange the big day—they were wed in July 1981.

9. Charles and Diana’s rehearsal dinner was almost as big as the main event.

Prince Charles, President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, and Princess Diana pose for photos before a dinner in 1985.White House — Ronald Reagan Presidential Library // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The couple held a rehearsal ceremony at St Paul’s two days before the big day, then headed back to Buckingham Palace for a lavish celebratory dinner and party. The Queen hosted the event, which was attended by 1400 invited guests. Alongside dignitaries and famous faces like the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, the list of rehearsal dinner invitees also included many of the palace’s staff, who had been in the couple’s service throughout their relationship.

10. The rehearsal dinner was big, but Charles and Diana’s wedding was still bigger.

A congregation of 3500 people were invited to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the royal couple's wedding day, with more than 2 million well-wishers lining the streets of London outside—and a further 750 million people believed to have tuned in from home to watch the events on television, in more than 60 different countries. The broadcast remains one of the biggest television events in history for a non-sporting event.

11. There were almost as many musicians as guests at Charles and Diana’s wedding.

There were three separate choirs and a further three orchestras arranged inside St. Paul’s Cathedral for the ceremony, including the British Philharmonia Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, and the entire orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Add to that the official fanfare ensemble of the Royal Military School—plus the New Zealand operative soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who sang Handel’s Let The Bright Seraphim as part of the ceremony—and you’ve got almost as many musicians in attendance as invited guests.

12. Charles and Diana’s guest list was suitably impressive.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret ThatcherHulton Archive/Getty Images

Besides the immediate royal family—plus Diana’s family, the Earl and Countess Spencer—among those also invited to the wedding were then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband; President Mitterrand of France; countless other European and Commonwealth heads of state; royal representatives from the monarchies of Japan, Jordan, Nepal, and Thailand; and a select handful of more personal invitees, including Prince Charles’s favorite comedians, Spike Milligan and Sir Harry Secombe, and the staff and parents of the nursery Diana had worked at before she began dating Charles.

13. Charles and Diana did have a few notable no-shows at their wedding.

Famously, King Juan Carlos of Spain declined his invite because the couple’s honeymoon plans included an overnight stay in Gibraltar, which has long been the subject of a territorial disagreement with the UK. Patrick Hillery, the president of Ireland, also stayed home in protest over the status of Northern Ireland. And while his First Lady was in attendance, President Reagan wasn't able to attend the wedding as he was scheduled to chair an economic summit in Ottawa the previous day (though it’s been speculated that he actually snubbed it because he didn’t want his first official visit to Europe as president to be a purely social one).

14. Charles was related to a lot of the people attending.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Thanks to many of Queen Victoria’s nine children and 42 grandchildren marrying into most of Europe’s other royal dynasties—lending her the title of “Grandmother of Europe”—today almost all of Europe’s royal family trees are all intertwined. (Incredibly, Diana was the first ordinary British citizen in 300 years to marry an heir to the throne.) So on his wedding day, Charles—as one of the foremost figures in the British House of Windsor—was related to most of the other royals in attendance. The King of Norway, Olav V, was his first cousin twice removed; Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was his fifth cousin once removed; Prince George Valdemar of Denmark was his second cousin once removed; King Baudouin of Belgium was his third cousin once removed, as was King Carl XVI of Sweden. And both the deposed King Michael I of Romania and his wife, Queen Anne of Romania, were Charles’s second cousins. Even Charles and Diana were related—albeit distantly: Both were descendants of Henry VII, which made them sixteenth cousins once removed.

15. Diana reportedly liked watching herself on TV.

On the morning of the wedding, Diana’s dressing room at the palace was a flurry of excitement. But in the midst of it all, Diana was oddly quiet—and was reportedly mesmerized by watching herself on television. According to bridesmaid India Hicks, “there was a small television on the side of this dressing table, and Diana was seated in front of it ... dressed in her jeans.” If any of the dressers, designers, bridesmaids, florists, hairdressers, or make-up artists who were in the room got in the way of the screen, Diana would shoo them away, “because, obviously, she was very excited to see herself on television.” It was only when the commercial break came on that Diana finally began to dress for her big day.

16. Diana’s wedding dress stole the show.

While Charles wore his traditional full-dress naval commander uniform, Diana wore an ivory-colored taffeta wedding gown, decorated with handmade lace and finished off with 10,000 hand-sewn pearls and a 25-foot silk train. The dress was the work of designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel, while Diana’s shoes—a bespoke, low-heeled pair of wedding slippers (low-heeled so that no one could tell she and Charles were both 5’ 10”)—were designed by shoemaker Clive Shilton, who personally adorned them with a further 542 sequins and another 132 pearls. (It took Shilton about six months to make the shoes.)

The designers all added a number of personal touches to Diana’s outfit, too. The Emanuels (a favorite designer of Diana's) sewed a diamond-encrusted horseshoe and a secret blue ribbon into the lining of her dress for good luck, and Shilton hand-painted a hidden “C” and a “D” onto the arches of her shoes. The designers were prepped for everything, too: In case it rained on the big day, they had prepared a lace-trimmed ivory parasol to shield the bride from the worst of the British weather.

17. Diana’s wedding dress broke all sorts of records.

Diana and the Emanuels (who were compelled to install a safe in their studio to keep their designs secret ahead of the big day) are said to have intentionally wanted her bridal gown to have the longest train of any royal gown in history—and they reportedly broke the previous record by a full 60 inches. In fact, Diana’s silk train proved too long to comfortably manage at home, forcing the Emanuels to eventually relocate from their studio to a seldom-used wing of Buckingham Palace to unroll, measure and construct the enormous garment in full. Though it was the train that stole all the headlines, that wasn’t even the dress’s biggest extravagance: Diana’s veil was made from a single 153-yard length of white tulle.

18. Diana had a dress disaster just before the wedding.

The French perfumiers at Houbigant (the oldest fragrance company in all of France) created a special perfume just for Diana's wedding day, which they called Quelques Fleur. Unfortunately, while getting ready Diana for the ceremony, Diana spilled some of the perfume on the front of her dress. She can be seen covering the stain with her hand in some of the wedding footage from that day.

19. Diana messed up Charles’s name while reciting their wedding vows.

Princess Diana wearing what she called her "Elvis dress" on a visit to Hong Kong in 1989.Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Diana's perfume disaster wasn't the only gaffe of the day. While reciting her vows, Diana famously muddled up the order of Charles’s full name, calling him “Philip Charles Arthur George” instead of “Charles Philip Arthur George.” In return, Charles fluffed his lines too, referring to “thy goods” rather than “my worldly goods” in his nuptials.

20. Diana refused to say she'd "obey" Charles in her wedding vows, which started a new royal tradition.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has provided the basis of the Church of England’s traditional wedding vows (whether royal or not) since the 17th century—and it’s this book that includes the famous line, “to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part." Diana, however, left out the “obey” part of that line in her wedding vows, prompting some eagle-eyed viewers at the time to assume it was just another nervous mistake. Not so, as it was later revealed that the couple (with the backing of the Dean of Westminster himself) had mutually agreed to ditch the “obey” part of the ceremony, arguing that it was outdated thinking.

When it was revealed that the line had been intentionally removed, the couple’s decision caused a sensation. Nevertheless, it has since become a tradition, with both Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle omitting the word obey from their vows in 2011 and 2018, respectively.

21. Charles and Diana’s post-wedding breakfast was a much smaller affair than their wedding ceremony.

Of the nearly 4000 guests invited to the ceremony, barely 100 were invited back to Buckingham Palace for a private wedding breakfast after the event.

22. Charles and Diana’s kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony established a new tradition.

AdrianHancu/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Charles and Diana appeared on the famous front balcony of Buckingham Palace just after 1 p.m. and their wedding day and delighted the enormous crowds below with an impromptu kiss. Kissing on the balcony has since become a traditional high point of all royal wedding days, maintained right up to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's wedding in 2018.

23. Charles and Diana had 27 wedding cakes.

A number of high-profile chefs and patisseries were asked to produce cakes for the wedding, including Food Network regular Nicholas Lodge and legendary Belgian pastry chef SG Sender (known as the “Cakemaker of the Kings,” due to the number of European royal weddings he was involved in). In total, some 27 different cakes were baked for the occasion—although the official wedding cake was made by David Avery, the head baker of the Royal Naval School of Cookery. Reportedly, Avery spent 14 weeks preparing the cake, which was a 5-foot tall, tiered fruitcake that weight 225 pounds. In fact, Avery made two cakes (in case one got damaged) so, really, there was really 28 cakes.

24. Some of Charles and Diana’s wedding gifts were quite unusual.

What do you get the couple who (truly) has everything? How about one ton of high-quality West Country peat? At least, that’s what a local village in the English county of Somerset decided to send to the royal couple to celebrate their big day, so that Charles could use the peat to fertilize the gardens on his new Gloucestershire estate, Highgrove House. Besides a host of gold and silverware, jewelry, antique furniture, and priceless art, some of the couple’s other wedding gifts included two four-poster beds, a carpet, a silver mousetrap, a case of Scottish whisky, a first edition of The Complete English Traveller (1771), a 100-year-old set of antique silk mittens, a $20,000 fully-equipped kitchen, and a handmade paperweight created from the same limestone used to build the Tower of London.

25. Charles and Diana’s marriage may not have lasted, but their wedding day was a triumph.

While Diana famously came to (understandably) take very different view of her wedding day, at the time, to her and everyone else involved it was a triumph. “It was heaven, amazing, wonderful, though I was so nervous when I was walking up the aisle that I swore my knees would knock and make a noise," Diana proclaimed of the day. As for Charles? He confessed to a cousin that, "There were several times when I was perilously close to crying from the sheer joy of it all."