Dickens, Hugo, Zola: the literature of the Nineteenth Century has left us with very strong images from that period of great economic and social transformation. The appearance of the new industrial production systems created real upheavals and brought about a condition of crisis for all the arts, the working of iron included.
The traditional figure of the blacksmith, who from time immemorial had forged hot iron by hand, hammering, bending and cutting, was ebbing away under the blows of the new technologies of casting and moulding, lacking that artistic expression that only man, and certainly not machine, could infuse into the finished product.
And now the sun was setting on the “great art” of the locksmith, despite the last enthusiastic epigones. The new thrust was towards mass production. Banks were becoming the new castles, containing at their heart the safe. And in the titanic effort to secure them against all risks, direct action was needed, as demanded by the ideology of the time.
Among the many aspects from the past, the Nineteenth Century also embraced the aesthetics of keys: 19th Century keys were more austere and pragmatic models that focused wholly on security. Inventive skillsthat had characterized 18th Century locks and keys, shifted towards the development of all sorts of locks, from mobile lever locks with cam keys to pump locks with cylindrical slotted keys or with circumferential appendices and locks with combination devices. Between 1770 and 1851 several locking systems were patented, including one with a stop mechanism that would impede the use of any false key.
It was partly the spirit of the times, a mixture of Victorian rigour and a middle-class preoccupation for security, that fed into the myth of impenetrable safes that could withstand anything. The first crack in that magical armour came from the greatest and most memorable robbery of the time in 1855 on the train that was transporting gold to the soldiers fighting in the distant Crimean war. It involved two safes containing the modern day equivalent of a million pounds that could only be opened with four keys, a resounding blow accomplished by Edward Pierce. The story is immortalised in the novel “The great train robbery” by Michael Crichton and by the 1979 film of the same name starring Sean Connery. A feat that necessitated daring subterfuge to be able to copy the keys (the only way to break into the coffers) and legendary and daring deeds motivated, as Pierce himself commented on the process, with one single, simple goal: “I wanted the money”.
So what were those famous four keys like? Modest, according to the style of the era, with oval handle, a subtle capital and smooth stem. The part that was most worked was undoubtedly the comb, with a very technical shape and an elaborate cam cut to open blocking movable lever locks, of the Chubb Locks brand.
The Nineteenth century was the century of Universal Exhibitions, true temples in celebration of Progress. One of these, the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, witnessed a singular rivalry. Mindful of the challenge laid down sixty years earlier by Joseph Bramah, two hundred pounds had been promised to anyone able to outsmart some of the locks on display. A certain Hobbs, who worked as a representative for Day and Newell that produced the Parautopic with modular bit key, presented as the only absolutely inviolable lock, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. In thirty minutes he had cracked the six-lever Chubb Detector and in ten days had put an end to the record of the mythical Bramah. A great way to outdo the competition. Needless to say, “his” Parautopic resisted all attacks. An absolute record that still stands today, “a utopia” that has become a reality.