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.”

10 Trailblazing Facts About Susan B. Anthony

Scewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Scewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

When people think of the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony is one of the names that immediately comes to mind. Although she didn't live long enough to vote (legally, at least), her contributions to women’s rights were part of a chain of events that culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment. On the occasion of her 200th birthday on February 15, 2020, here are a few facts you might not know about Anthony’s life and legacy.

1. Susan B. Anthony was born into a family of abolitionists.

A large house
Susan B. Anthony's childhood home, photographed in 1897.
Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Susan Brownell Anthony was born into a Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1820. She was the second of seven children, and her entire family was full of activists. Anti-slavery meetings were eventually held at their farm every Sunday, and her father became friends with prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. These experiences shaped her views on equality, and some of her earliest activist work was in support of the abolitionist movement.

2. Susan B. Anthony was a teacher for 10 years.

Susan B. Anthony in her younger years
Susan B. Anthony in her younger years
Wikimedia/NYPL Digital Gallery // Public Domain

Teaching was one of the few professions open to women of Anthony's era. She taught from 1839 to 1849, eventually becoming principal of the girls' department at Canajoharie Academy in upstate New York. During her decade as a teacher, she spoke publicly about the need for higher pay for female teachers, as well as more professional opportunities for women.

3. Susan B. Anthony was BFFs with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1870

A mutual acquaintance, Amelia Bloomer, introduced Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851. You could say it was friendship at first sight. Stanton later said of her first impression of Anthony, "I liked her thoroughly, and why I did not at once invite her home with me to dinner, I do not know." More than pals, they were also close collaborators with similar views. Together, they would eventually found the National Woman Suffrage Association and also start up a women's rights newspaper called The Revolution. Although their personal lives were very different, they found a way to use it to their advantage. Anthony, who never married or had children, was free to attend rallies and speaking engagements across the country. Stanton had seven children, so she wrote from home as a means of influencing the movement.

4. Susan B. Anthony's first public speech was about the dangers of alcohol.

Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress/Wikimedia // No known restrictions

Anthony didn’t attend her first women's rights convention until she was in her thirties. Before that, she was active in the temperance movement, which advocated stronger liquor laws and preached the dangers of heavy drinking. She gave her first public speech at a Daughters of Temperance event, but when she was denied the right to speak at a Sons of Temperance convention a few years later, she and Stanton decided to form their own Women's State Temperance Society. They launched a petition to get the state legislature to limit the sale of liquor, but it was revoked because most of the signers were women and children. Anthony and Stanton realized they’d never be taken seriously until women gained the right to vote, so their priorities started to shift around this time.

5. Susan B. Anthony cut her hair and dressed differently to prove a point.

Amelia Bloomer in the outfit she designed, with
Amelia Bloomer in the outfit she designed, with "bloomers"
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many activists and suffragists argued that women should be free to wear less restrictive clothes than the corsets and heavy underskirts that dominated in those days. To prove their point, many women wore trouser-like bloomers (named for Amelia Bloomer, who advocated them) under their skirts. Following in the footsteps of Stanton, Anthony cut her long, brown hair and started wearing bloomers, albeit somewhat reluctantly. She was ridiculed for her new look, and ultimately decided that the negative attention detracted from the message she wanted to convey. She reverted to her old ways after a year.

6. Susan B. Anthony believed that riding bicycles was one of the best ways to fight the patriarchy.

Women cyclists
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bicycles were kind of a big deal for women in the 19th century. The machines gave women a sense of independence and mobility that they hadn't enjoyed before, allowing them to leave their houses without having to ask their husbands for a ride. As Anthony once put it, "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood."

7. Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth amendment.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony circa 1890
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the biggest criticisms lobbed against Anthony and Stanton is that they didn’t support the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. The pair were upset that the amendment didn't include women, so they splintered from other suffragist groups and formed their own National Woman Suffrage Association. "There was a battle among abolitionists … between having a Fifteenth Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans," Lori D. Ginzberg, author of a biography about Stanton, told NPR. Anthony and Stanton opted for the latter, and their decision has been the subject of controversy ever since.

8. Susan B. Anthony was jailed for voting.

A monument at the site where Anthony voted, illegally, in the 1872 election
A monument at the site where Anthony voted, illegally, in the 1872 election

Anthony and 15 other women showed up at the polls to vote in the presidential election of 1872, which pitted Horace Greeley against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant. Considering that women were barred from voting at the time, this was a symbolic gesture as well as an act of civil disobedience. (But for what it's worth, Anthony voted for President Grant.) When Anthony was later politely asked by an officer to come down to the precinct to face arrest, she demanded that she be "arrested properly" in the same way a man would be arrested. This request was granted, but her trial wasn’t exactly fair. She wasn't permitted to testify, and the judge instructed the jury to find her guilty. Anthony was ultimately handed a fine of $100, which she refused to pay. Although her actions greatly influenced the suffrage movement, she never did have the chance to vote legally. The Nineteenth Amendment passed 13 years after her death.

9. Susan B. Anthony's face was almost carved into Mount Rushmore.

Workers construct George Washington's image on Mount Rushmore
Rise Studio, Rapid City, S. Dak, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In 1937 Congress considered adding Anthony's face to the famed mountain after the Washington and Jefferson portions were completed. However, that idea was scrapped after the House Appropriations Committee said the funds must only be used to complete the sculptures that were already underway (which, at that time, included the Lincoln and Roosevelt sections).

10. Susan B. Anthony was the first woman to appear on circulating U.S. currency.

Susan B. Anthony on the one-dollar coin
Alex Bergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The U.S. Treasury Department decided to set a new precedent by putting Anthony's face on a one-dollar coin starting in 1979. However, it looked a little too much like a quarter and cash registers didn’t have a designated space for them, so the coin wasn't widely circulated. Anthony may get a second chance, though, when she appears on the back of the redesigned $10 bill. (The timeline for the redesign, announced in 2016, is currently unclear.) Other influential women expected to appear on the redesigned $10 include Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Alice Paul.

8 Facts About Lupercalia—the Ancient Festival Full of Whippings and Ritual Sacrifice

Sex, violence, and drunkenness: For centuries, Lupercalia was a major Roman party, surviving well into the rise of Christianity. And pretty soon, someone on your Facebook feed is probably going to claim that this holiday gave rise to our modern Valentine’s Day. So what’s the true story behind the ancient Roman festival and its relation to candy hearts?

1. Lupercalia featured odd sacrifices.

Every year on February 15, the festival began by going to the Lupercal (the legendary site where Romulus and Remus were suckled) and sacrificing a dog and a goat. According to scholar Keith Hopkins, this was unusual in and of itself, because pigs, sheep, and bulls were most commonly used as sacrificial animals. The Oxford Classical Dictionary explains that next, the blood of these animals "was smeared with a knife on the foreheads of two youths (who were obliged to laugh), and wiped with wool dipped in milk."

2. Whippings were also on the menu.

After the blood/wool excitement, Lupercalia's main attraction was the runners. The sacrificed goat’s skin was cut into thongs and (possibly—see below) girdles to be worn by the athletes. Then two sets of runners (a third set would be added later) would make their way through the streets of the city, whipping whomever they met on their way. According to some accounts, women would volunteer to be whipped because it was believed to bring fertility and make the birthing process easier for them. But as the years passed, things changed; by the 3rd century, the voluntary nature of this ritual seemed to be less voluntary. Hopkins claims that a mosaic featuring a Lupercalia celebration features “two men forcibly holding a naked woman face upwards, while a third man, half naked, whips her thighs ... The men’s drunken hilarity is matched by the beaten woman’s obvious pain."

3. People may have been naked—or maybe not.

One long-standing debate about Lupercalia is the degree of nudity. There are definite references to nudus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean naked. It could just mean “having one’s main garment removed,” possibly in reference to the runners wearing goat skin loincloths. But other writers were explicit in mentioning nudity as part of the festivities. It remains an open question whether the festival was PG-, R-, or X-rated.

4. It’s not quite clear who or what the Lupercalia festival was celebrating.

Circle of Adam Elsheimer The Lupercalian Festival in Rome
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

According to the 1st century BCE scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, "the Luperci [are so called] because at the Lupercalia they sacrifice at the Lupercal … the Lupercalia are so called because [that is when] the Luperci sacrifice at the Lupercal." This incredibly unhelpful circular definition has led to centuries of debate about who, or what, the festival was actually celebrating.

Ovid suggested that it was for Faunus (a Roman pastoral god); Livy said it was Inuus (the god of fertility); and Varro said it was a wolf goddess named Luperca. Traditionally, the two sets of runners are related to the mythological founders of Rome—Romulus and Remus—who were suckled by a wolf. But confusingly, Livy says that the twins were ambushed by bandits while celebrating the Lupercalia, leading some scholars to suggest the festival predates Romulus and Remus.

As South African scholar P.M.W. Tennant observed while discussing Romulus and Remus and the Lupercalia, “most of the ideas put forward here are obviously highly conjectural—as all theories concerning the Lupercalia are bound to be."

5. Lupercalia is when Julius Caesar was offered the crown.

Today, Lupercalia is probably most famous for what happened on February 15, 44 BCE. That day a “ naked, perfumed, drunk ” Mark Antony was one of the runners while Julius Caesar watched the proceedings from a throne. Antony went up to Julius Caesar with a diadem (a type of crown or headband) and—in what later historians have said was almost certainly scripted—attempted to give it to Caesar and proclaim him king.

The crowd's initial response to this action was tepid, but when Caesar refused the crown they cheered. Antony tried again, Caesar refused again, and the crowd exploded. Caesar ordered the crown taken to the Temple of Jupiter because Jupiter was Rome’s one king. The purpose of this exercise has been debated. Some propose Antony did it on his own to either flatter Caesar or embarrass him, while at the time it was thought that Caesar orchestrated the stunt as a way to test the waters for whether the people would accept a king. Either way, it didn't really work out for Caesar; he was assassinated one month later.

6. A Pope criticized the festival.

One of Lupercalia's most remarkable features is how long it survived. We know this because circa 494 CE, Pope Gelasius wrote a letter criticizing Christian participation in it. He commented on how in the olden days nobles would run as Lupercali and strike naked matrons, and modern participants should be willing to similarly run naked. By Gelasius’s time this had become heavily altered, leading him to proclaim “your own bashfulness ought itself to teach you that the Lupercalia is a public crime, not salvation and the cult of the Divinity, regarding which no wise man would blush. Rather the Lupercalia is an instrument of depravity, which your mind, bearing testimony against itself, blushes to fulfill.”

The letter is interesting to historians for many reasons. First, because Gelasius flat-out describes many of the less seemly rites, and it also allows historians to analyze how Lupercalia changed with time and changed with the perception of the author. For instance, Gelasius indicated that by the 5th century lower classes were the runners, whereas important figures like Mark Antony participated in earlier events.

7. Despite what you've heard, Lupercalia probably has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

Many pop culture websites and books declare that Pope Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with a festival dedicated to St. Valentine of Rome (or possibly of Terni—the figure is mysterious) who had his feast day on February 14. But as British author Mark Forsyth once observed, "It is vitally important when writing about traditions to remember that there are only 365 days in the year ... Overlap is not significance."

Most medieval historians agree there’s no evidence that Pope Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with any festival whatsoever (a similar claim that Candlemas replaced Lupercalia is also without merit) with scholar Jack Oruch proclaiming “at no point does Gelasius speak of compromise or of adapting any pagan customs” and another professor telling History.com: "It just drives me crazy that the Roman story keeps circulating and circulating." Meanwhile, popular legends that Lupercalia featured girls writing their names on paper that would be drawn from a box by boys are likely an 18th-century invention.

Most mainstream historians instead propose that Valentine’s Day and romance became associated with each other only in the late 14th century, and specifically because of a Geoffrey Chaucer poem called "Parliament of Fowls" (or "Parlement of Foules").

8. Valentine’s Day might not even be on February 14.

In Chaucer’s poem, he proclaimed (in modern spelling) “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day / When every bird came there to choose his mate.” But some historians have noted that February 14 is still very cold in England and is unlikely to be a good bird mating season. In the 1980s some historians, led by Andy Kelly of UCLA, began proposing that the "Valentine" Chaucer was referring to was St. Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day occurred on May 2 or May 3 (sources differ), instead of Valentine of Rome. This is especially relevant because King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia concluded their marriage treaty on May 2, meaning Chaucer may have chosen Valentine by just picking out a random saint whose day fell on the correct day in May. Over the years, the association with May weakened and the day migrated to the more famous Valentine of Rome.

Other scholars objected, pointing out that there are many references to fertility rites and festivals in February—such as Lupercalia—and that Chaucer may have been discussing the more famous Valentine of Rome and February 14.

"In medieval studies there is neither consensus nor continuing debate on the question which St. Valentine Chaucer had in mind," Professor Steven Justice of the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. "The evidence just hasn't supported any conclusive arguments one way or the other, and unless one is (a) convinced that the feast, whichever it is, identifies the historical occasion of the poem, if it had one, and (b) interested in that historical occasion, the question does not seem very consequential. One would like an answer just because one doesn't like unanswered questions, but it's not clear that much hangs on it."

One thing is clear: Today, whether you celebrate Lupercalia or St. Valentine of Rome’s day in February or St. Valentine of Genoa in May, it's best leave out the goat sacrifices and running naked through the streets.

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