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Taking a Look Back at the World’s First “Unpickable” Locks

Historical records show that the first locks were used by Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians thousands of years ago. However, the way these locks improved security was very limited since they can easily be tampered with or destroyed. It was only in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the first “unpickable” locks were made.

This article will take you a few centuries back when the first highly secured locks were invented. Read on to learn who created them and whether or not they can be bypassed.

Joseph Bramah and His High-Security Lock

Best known for designing and inventing the hydraulic press, Joseph Bramah was an engineer who hailed from England. One of his lesser-known inventions is the so-called Bramah Lock, which was created and patented in 1784. It is one of the first known high-security locks in history, and its claim to fame was its resistance to any form of picking.

The lock is operated using sliders, which are small pieces of metal that move up and down when the key is inserted. The more sliders a lock has, the more complex and difficult it is to bypass. The Bramah lock at that time had 18 sliders, so it was virtually impossible to open by chance without the real key.

Bramah soon founded his own company to mass produce and sell his high-security locks using the design he patented. He displayed one of his locks at his main shop in London, and posed a challenge. He said that anyone who could pick it would receive a handsome reward of 200 guineas (or roughly around $30,000 today).

Bramah died in 1814, and at that time, no attempt by any local locksmith to pick his invention had been successful. It was only in 1851, or almost 70 years since the challenge was posed, that someone successfully beat it.

Jeremiah Chubb and His Detector Lock

After a burglary at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in 1817, the British government initiated a contest to create a lock that cannot be opened using false keys. Jeremiah Chubb, an ironmonger, was up for the challenge. In 1818, he invented and patented the detector lock, which had a unique mechanism inside that sensed and prevented all sorts of picking. Any unauthorized access would cause the lock to jam itself, and by then, it could only be opened using a special regulator key.

Chubb claimed that his invention was also “unpickable.” For a person to open it without key, they need considerable skills to not accidentally trigger the jamming mechanisms inside the lock. Not even the best locksmith in town at that time had been triumphant in tampering with the detector lock. After all, it was only until 1851 that someone successfully bypassed it.

Alfred Charles Hobbs and His Lock-Picking Business

Born in Boston Massachusetts in 1812, Alfred Charles Hobbs was a simple local locksmith who had a peculiar way of running his business. He would go to banks and convince managers that their locks can easily be tampered with, and so they should use his lock instead. With his charisma and skill, he would pick the locks right then and there, and that would prompt the bank managers to buy his locks.

However, it was not this lock-picking business that made Hobbs famous. Rather, it was the fact that he was the only person in the world who had the skill to bypass both Chubb and Bramah’s locks. The two “unpickable” inventions were showcased at the London Great Exhibition in 1951. All the way from the Americas, Hobbs rode a steamship to attend the event, showcase his abilities, and possibly sell some lock, as well. All Hobbs brought with him at that time was his confidence in himself and a small trunk filled with lock-picking tools, like tiny wrenches and slender rakes.

According to a witness’s account, it only took Hobbs about 25 minutes to pick Chubb’s detector lock. He deliberately and repeatedly triggered the jamming mechanism and reset it using his tools. With each repetition, he gained a bit of information about how the lock worked until he ultimately bypassed it. But, Chubb’s lock was nothing but a warmup to Hobbs. The real challenge, apparently, was picking the Bramah safety lock.

Hobbs was given 30 days to try to pick the Bramah lock, and a committee member would occasionally check his progress. After a grueling 51 hours of labor spread over 16 days, Hobbs finally beat the 70-year-old challenge. Representatives from Bramah’s company tested if the lock still worked, and it did, which meant that Hobbs did not try to destroy the lock to open it. Hobbs received the 200 guineas reward after his successful attempt to bypass Bramah’s unpickable lock.