In April 1851, Alfred C. Hobbs boarded the steamship Washington bound for Southampton, England.
His official duty was to sell the New York City-based company Day and Newell’s newest product – the parautopic lock – at a trade show – London’s Great Exhibition.
But Hobbs had something a bit more nefarious up his sleeve, or rather in the small trunk that accompanied him on the ship. In it sat a large assortment of picks, wrenches, rakes, and other slender tools.
You see, Hobbs wasn’t just trying to sell his locks. He was trying to prove that his competitors’ locks were, quite simply, not good enough. He had the tools, skills, and charisma to do just that.
Alfred Hobbs was about to launch the Great Lock Controversy of 1851.
Of all the locks at the Great Exhibition in July of 1851, the “Detector” was thought of as top of the class.
Patented in 1818 by Jeremiah Chubb, it had become the most widely used and prestigious lock throughout England.
In fact, in 1823 Chubb was given the distinguished honor of being the sole supplier of locks for England’s post offices and “Her Majesty’s Prison Service.”
By 1851, Chubb & Son and their “Detector” lock was so highly respected that they were given the assignment of creating a special security display cage that housed the great Koh-i-Noor diamond, a 186 carat diamond that currently sits in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth which is locked in the Tower of London.
Numerous picklocks in London had made attempts at getting past the Detector with no success. In one instance, a picklock who had been imprisoned was offered his freedom if he could figure out a way to pick the Detector lock. He couldn’t do it.
What made the Detector so difficult was that the lock had a built in anti-lock picking mechanism which, if triggered, would render the lock inoperable, even if you had the key.
This trap worked such that if you lifted one of the pins beyond what the key would have done, it triggered the lockdown mechanism.
By this, you could also tell if someone had tried to pick the lock, if your key suddenly stopped working.
To get the lock to work again, a special regulating key was needed, which would reset the lock such that it could be opened once again with the normal key.
The “Detector” was thought to be in a lock class all to itself. That is, until Hobbs got to it.
According to a report filed by Benji Johnson, “an agent of the state of New York appointed to attend” the Great Exhibition, Hobbs wasted very little time in proving that Chubb’s locks were not impenetrable.
As the report read, “Soon after the exhibition opened, Mr. A.C. Hobbs, of New York, who had charge of Day and Newell’s locks, obtained one of Chubb’s locks and opened it in a space of 10 or 15 minutes, in the presence of several gentlemen.”
As one would imagine, this did not sit well with many an Englishmen who were using the Detector to lock away their homes and valuables; most of all, it did not sit well with Chubb & Son.
They challenged Hobbs to try something a tad more difficult, a Chubb’s lock attached to an iron door of a vault in Westminster that was a “depository of valuable papers.” Hobbs sent out an invitation for them to come watch him pick, “Gentlemen- An attempt will made to open a lock of your manufactured on the door of a strong room… You are respectfully invited to be present and witness the operation.”
At approximately 11:35 am, in front of the iron door in Westminster, Hobbs met his skeptical onlookers.
He took out from his “waistcoat two or three small and simple-looking tools – a description of which, for obvious reasons, we fear to give” and went to work.
Within twenty five minutes, he had the lock open with a “sharp click.”
He had once again successfully picked a supposedly impenetrable Chubb lock.