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Sifting Through The World Of Locks, And Those Who Pick Them


They have been used to protect our things for about as long as humans have had things to protect. Whether pad or combination, Chubb or Yale, I am talking, of course, about locks. Tom Vanderbilt is an author and journalist who's been sifting through the world of locks and those who love to pick them in search of the unbeatable lock. His work appears on Tom joins us on the line. Hey there, Tom.


MARTIN: So, I just made reference to Chubb - just kind of a funny name - but this was a real guy. He was a 19th century Brit who thought he had built the perfect lock. Tell us about the American who ended up proving him wrong.

VANDERBILT: Yeah. That was a character named Alfred Hobbs who worked for a lock and safe manufacturer. And he was kind of a hobbyist lock picker - and a very good one. And so in 1851, the great exhibition was being held in London, and this was a great chance for people from all countries to show off their manufacturing goods. And so he, you know, showed up in London and there was this sort of showdown that was advertised in the press, you know, come pick this unbeatable lock in London. And in fact, Hobbs was able to do. He was able to do it again. And it was spread into essentially the English psyche. I mean, here was this American who had come onto English soil and challenged not only their sense of security but their sort of sense of manufacturing superiority.

MARTIN: So, picking locks, I mean, hobbyists do this. I understand you had a chance to go to a lock picker's convention. Are there kind of stars in this community? Are there people who are really good?

VANDERBILT: Yes, there are. I mean, the lock picking itself tends to be dominated by the Germans. There's another competition called impressioning. You insert what the locksmiths call a blank, a blank key into a lock and then you try to sort of manipulate it a little bit to get faint indentations of - you sort of read what the lock is telling you through the key and then you basically try to file a perfect key. And the Dutch also seem to be very good at that.

MARTIN: So, you talk about a perfect key. In all of your research, have you been able to discern whether or not there is such a thing as a perfect lock?

VANDERBILT: I sort of went into this hoping that there was something. But talking to people in the industry, I really was put on a different mindset in that, you know, why bother? There's always another way in. And in fact - and this is the good news, I suppose. The people who care the most about locks are the people who work in the industry.

MARTIN: I would imagine after all of your detailed investigation into this world you might be pretty good at this. I mean, do you know how to pick locks?

VANDERBILT: I bought a lock-picking set here in New York City. I got pretty good. But not only did I buy a lock-picking set, but the day after I had lunch with one of these guys, I actually bought an entire new lock system for my house. Even though there is no perfect lock, my lock clearly was not that good. And the longer you spend talking with security professionals, the less safe you actually feel in your life. You get a little paranoid, and perhaps for a good reason.

MARTIN: Tom Vanderbilt. His series, The Lock Pickers, appears on Tom, thanks so much.

VANDERBILT: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.