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Friday, May 16, 2014

Time Enough for Locks


By Kathleen Rice Adams


For as long as there have been haves and wanna-haves, the haves have sought ways to secure their valuables from thieving wanna-haves. History no longer remembers the inventor of the first lock, but it is said the key was invented by Theodore of Samos in the sixth century B.C., which leads to the suspicion locks have been around much longer. In fact, crude locking mechanisms dating to the early Pharaonic period have been found in Egyptian ruins.

The first devices resembling what we know today as door locks were discovered in the palace of Persian king Sargon II, who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C. They were large, clumsy devices made of wood; nevertheless, they served as prototypes for contemporary security devices.

Bodie [California] Bank's vault, mid-1870s. Dick Rowan,
photographer (National Archives and Records Administration)

The first all-metal locks, probably made by English craftsmen, appeared between 870 and 900 A.D. in Rome. A row of bars of varying lengths, called tumblers, dropped into holes drilled through the horizontal bolt securing a door or gate. Only the person who possessed a metal bar fitted with pins corresponding to the tumblers could shove the tumblers upward through the holes, thus freeing the bolt.

No great advancements in lock technology occurred until about the fourteenth century A.D., when locks small enough to carry appeared. Traveling tradesmen used the “convenient locks” to secure their money and other valuables.

Although padlocks were known to ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the first combination lock didn’t appear until the eighteenth century. Until 1873, most banks used combination locks of some kind to secure their vault. The secret to effective combination locks was creating a complex series of letters and numbers that would frustrate anyone who tried to disarm the mechanism. The code for the combination lock securing the mid-nineteenth-century safe in the U.S. Treasury in Washington D.C., for example, could not be opened without a lengthy series of letters and numbers that provided 1,073,741,824 possible combinations. Because determining the code by organized guesswork would require 2,042 years, 324 days, and one hour to crack, the lock was considered burglar-proof.

Combination locks had one big Achilles heel, though: It didn’t take long for criminals to figure out they could kidnap a bank employee and require him or her to dial in the correct code.

In 1873, James Sargent invented what he called a theft-proof lock. Theft-proof locks combined a combination lock with a timer that prevented the safe from opening until a certain number of hours had passed, even if one knew the combination.

Ruins of the 1906 Nye & Ormsby County Bank in Manhattan,
Nevada. The bank crumbled, but the vault survived.

By the late 1870s, theft-proof locks were de rigueur in banks all over the U.S. Though they weren’t quite unbreakable — thieves simply swapped dynamite or liquid nitroglycerin for captive bank employees and blew open safes — theft-proof locks thwarted more thieves than any previous mechanism. Called time locks these days, much more sophisticated descendants of Sargent's invention remain popular devices for banks and other high-security areas.

A bank vault equipped with a theft-proof lock causes all sorts of trouble for the hero in “The Worst Outlaw in the West,” my contribution to Prairie Rose Publications’ new anthology, Lassoing a Groom. The book, containing stories by Jacquie Rogers, Kirsten Lynn, Tracy Garrett, Kristy McCaffrey, Linda Hubalek, and me, will bow May 20. In the meantime, I’ve plopped an excerpt from my story below.


“The Worst Outlaw in the West”


“Let me see that.” Laredo pulled the banker’s daughter aside and stepped around her to examine the door. “I’ll be damned.” He cringed. You’ve been away from civilization too long. With as much contrition as he could muster, he turned to face the plainest woman he’d ever seen. Except for the colorless oval above a high collar, everything between her hat and her hemline was mouse-brown. “Sorry, ma’am. My mouth sometimes forgets it’s around ladies.”

Her brows rose toward the brim of the godawful thing on her head. “You’ve been around ladies?”

Ouch. “Not often. I’ll grant you that.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “What is that thing?”

“A theft-proof lock.” She enunciated each syllable with care, as though he didn’t speak English. “It’s the latest in bank security.”

“Since when?”

She pinned him with a skeptical squint. “You’re not much of a bank robber, are you?”

Laredo yanked the bandana from his mouth and nose. There had to be a better way to disguise a man’s face. Damn thing was all wet. “I’m a hell of bank robber. Been havin’ a dry spell lately, that’s all.” Since the day of his birth. “You ever hear of the Hawkins Gang?”

She raised her chin. “I can’t say I have.”

And therein lay his dilemma: neither had anyone else.




"The Worst Outlaw in the West"

Laredo Hawkins has one ambition: to redeem his family's honor by pulling the first successful bank robbery in the Hawkins clan's long, disappointing history. Spinster Prudence Barrett is desperate to save her family's bank from her brother's reckless investments. A chance encounter between the dime-novel bandit and the old maid may set the pair on a path to infamy...if either can find a map.


25 comments:

  1. Love the excerpt! And the details in the photos. Can't wait for our book to come out on May 20th!

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    1. I can't wait either, Linda! Your story, "The Perfect Homestead Bride," is delightful. :-)

      Thanks for stopping by this morning!

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  2. Great information, Tex! I guess I never really thought about locks dating back that far. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED, THE WORST OUTLAW IN THE WEST!!!

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    1. Speak up, Rustler. I can't hear that whisperin' all the way over here. :-D

      Thanks for the compliment on the story. I came up with the idea of a bank robber foiled in his attempt to rob a vault, and then I had to figure out WHY he couldn't get into the darn thing. At the time, I had no clue time-lock safes were invented during the period in which I wanted to set the story, Pure luck. :-D

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  3. Kathleen, what an interesting post! I never really thought about locks, but seems you, my Texas sister, have given this a LOT of thought--and research, for your story THE WORST OUTLAW IN TEXAS. What a wonderful tale--talk about TWISTY! Oh wait...isn't TWISTY your middle name? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
    Cheryl

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    1. I get a little nervous every time I hear that maniacal laugh of yours, Okie. :-D

      Thanks for the compliments on "The Worst Outlaw." Poor Laredo is just one of those guys who can't seem to get out of his own way. Thank goodness he tripped over Prudence!

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  4. Just says to me we've been thieving from each other since time began.
    Ya know, I was wondering how the heck you were going to work this whole lock thing into something about your story. Leave it to you to think of some odd kind of weirdness like a lock to give the hero some grief, Kathleen. Heck, I already love the title. I suppose this will be another story to "steal" our hearts. LOL

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    1. Oh dear. Sarah, you've gone hog wild with those puns today, haven't you? :-D

      Like Cheryl's, my heroes are all hunkered in a little room, trying to hide themselves under tables and chairs or behind sofas and pleading "please pick anyone but me!" The heroines are in another room saying "let me at 'em!" ;-)

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  5. Kathleen,
    I've just finished 'The Worst Outlaw in Texas' and leave it to you to redeem a bank robber. Well done. I really enjoyed it! And the trivia about locks is fascinating.

    A happy Friday to you!

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    1. Thanks, Kristy! I had fun with this story. Now I've got to figure out something to throw at Laredo's brother. He's already saying "this just ain't fair." ;-)

      Happy Friday to you, too!

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  6. I enjoyed reading the historical tidbits you shared about locks. I had no idea time locks dated that far back. (nice plot device, though) lol My husband is a banker (loan officer), and he tells a story of one of the tellers setting the time lock at the end of the work day and, instead of setting it for overnight, she set it for two days and they had to 'borrow' operating money from a bank in a neighboring town in order to keep their doors open for those two days. 0_o

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    1. Oh my goodness, Kaye! That sounds funny now, but I'm sure it wasn't at the time. They say "art imitates life." I'm pretty sure that happens in reverse sometimes, too. ;-)

      Thanks for stopping by, sweetie!

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  7. Kathleen, what a fun, humorous excerpt! Your story sounds like a delightful romp in the Old West. Best of luck with the book launch. And thanks for the interesting history of locks.

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    1. Hi, Lynn! "Romp" is a good word for this story, although I suppose Laredo might have other words for it. ;-)

      The history of locks surprised me. Who knew they were that old? And just imagine someone securing his or her valuables with a wooden lock!

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  8. Oh my, that excerpt brought a huge grin to my face, and a snicker also snuck in.

    Enjoyed the 'history' of locks and the photos were fun. Thanks for both. Doris

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    1. Thanks, Doris! I'm glad you got a snicker out of the excerpt. Every once in a while my offbeat sense of humor sneaks out. ;-)

      I was a bit taken by surprise by the history of locks. I intended merely to look up different kinds of bank vault locks that might have been in use during the last few decades of the 19th century, and those dang research bunnies led me on a merry chase. Darn those bunnies, anyway. :-D

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    2. Gotta watch out for those creatures, they have a devious side. There sending me on a merry chase right now for a Woman MD that ain't where she's suppose to be...dang it. Still and all, they trip is fun when I get a chance to relax. *Grin* Doris

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    3. Well, they say misery loves company, Doris. I think the same applies to research bunnies. If they're after both of us, at least I'll be in good company! :-)

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  9. I just researched the subject for The Hardest Ride sequel. Bud's depositing money in the back and is shown the safe to alleviate his reluctance.

    The clerk took us into a back room. It had a wooden door, but behind it was an iron-bar door like a jail. Had a big box lock on it. The room had brick walls, no window. Against a wall was a big dark green safe with fancy gold letters on its double doors. I couldn’t make out what they said. That safe was taller than me and over half that wide.
    “Made by the Diebold Safe & Lock Company of New York. The most secure safe anywhere in south Texas. Has a second set of doors inside.” He was sure proud of it.
    “Being damn Yankee-made, is it any good then?”
    He laughed. “Oh, yes, sir, regardless of it being made by damn Yankees.”
    Marta looked it over suspicious like. Side-glancing at the clerk, she gave it a hard kick, and scrunched up her face. She nodded and limped off.
    “She’s good with it,” I said.
    “You have a pleasant day, Mr. Eugen.”

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    1. Gordo, we'll have to compare notes about safes and locks! It's not one of those topics people are lining up to research. :-D

      When is the sequel due to publish? I so enjoyed THE HARDEST RIDE, and I'm looking forward to reading more about Bud and Marta. Those two just leaped off the pages. Wonderful characterization there, my friend. :-)

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    2. Thanks Kathleen. No pub date, but I'll keep you posted. I was taught how to pick locks while in the Army having been in an unusual and fun unit.

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    3. And here I got stuck riding a desk during my tour. No fair!

      Remind me to keep an eye on you, Mr. Yegg. I'll bet you can be a sneaky varmint. ;-)

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  10. Very interesting, Kathleen. Gosh, imagine getting locked in one of those time locked vaults!

    I like your extract about Laredo and Prudence.

    Keith

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    1. If it's all the same to you, doc, I'd rather not imagine getting locked in a time-lock vault! :-D

      Thanks for your kind words about Laredo and Prudence. That means a lot to me, coming from someone whose westerns I admire. Your characters and plot twists are always fabulous. It's just not fair that a Scot writes better tales about the Wild West than many Americans do! :-D

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  11. "Aw shucks, ma'am!" said the Scottish pretender.

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