Dickens’s attention to detail in his novels is often astonishing.
Towards the end of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Mr Pickwick has gone to Gray’s Inn Square to consult his lawyer, Mr Perker. Pickwick arrives just before opening hours and the lawyer’s clerk, Mr Lowten, greets him.
“You’re early, Mr. Pickwick,” said a voice behind him.
“Ah, Mr. Lowten,” replied that gentleman, looking round, and recognising his old acquaintance.
“Precious warm walking, isn’t it?” said Lowten, drawing a Bramah key from his pocket, with a small plug therein, to keep the dust out.
“You appear to feel it so,” rejoined Mr. Pickwick, smiling at the clerk, who was literally red-hot.
“I’ve come along, rather, I can tell you,” replied Lowten. “It went the half hour as I came through the Polygon. I’m here before him, though, so I don’t mind.”
Comforting himself with this reflection, Mr. Lowten extracted the plug from the door-key; having opened the door, replugged and repocketed his Bramah, and picked up the letters which the postman had dropped through the box, he ushered Mr. Pickwick into the office.
Jeremiah Chubb entered the annals of locksmith history in 1818 for the “Detector” lock devised with his brother, Charles, which incorporated an ingenious spring device that grabbed any tumbler lifted too high (as by a false key or lockpicker’s tool) and held it in place, simultaneously rendering the lock inoperable and preserving evidence of tampering.
Meanwhile, Joseph Bramah, a successful engineer who in 1778 had patented the first flush toilet – featuring the float and valve system still used today – had turned his attention to lockmaking and come up with a different device. It was circular, and featured a small tubular key cut with a number of slots that, when inserted into the lock, depressed a configuration of slides to release the bolt.
The Bramah design was the first known high-security lock. Bramah received a patent for it in 1787 and started the Bramah Locks Company at 124 Piccadilly, London.
The slider lock was calculated to have more than 470 million possible permutations and was widely considered unpickable. Indeed, in 1801, Bramah issued a public challenge to prove its impregnability, placing in the window of his shop a barrel-shaped padlock version of his patent lock bearing the legend “The Artist who can make an Instrument that will pick or Open this Lock, shall Receive 200 Guineas the Moment it is produced.”
That challenge padlock is displayed at the Science Museum in London. Today, Bramah locks are in great demand for a range of applications as diverse as explosives warehouses, residential front doors, jewellery cabinets, and at least one World Heritage Site.
Mr Perker in The Pickwick Papers – first published in serial form from 1836 to 1837 – was right up to date in having a Bramah lock fitted to the door of his office. And the plug that Mr Lowten removed from the key not only protected it from dust but crucially from damage to its unique slots. Dickens could simply have written “Mr Lowten unlocked the door”. Instead he gives us chapter and verse and, in doing so, a glimpse of his ever lively mind.