Safes have become the staple of safety and security, and they have played an important role in the formation of banks, business, and commerce and were just another part of the equation for cowboys and outlaw gangs. However, safes have a rich history that far precedes cowboys and the Wild West. Let’s take a look at the history behind the safe.
Far before the construction of steel safes with digital keypads and biometric locks, nobles in medieval Europe stored their valuables in hardwood boxes wrapped in hammered iron, adding extra strength and durability. Although they weren’t easy to break into, they weren’t exactly advanced or invulnerable. These early “safes” were more often ornamental or used for decoration, implementing fine craftsmanship.
Around the 1700s, craftsmen implemented wrought-iron to the wooden chests for added support. By the end of the century, cast iron safes were the norm. These effectively deterred burglars but did not provide protection against natural disasters or fires.
By 1825, Jesse Delano of New York City was manufacturing full iron chests. In 1826, he patented an improved fireproof safe by coating the wooden parts with a concoction of clay, lime, plumbago, and mica or a solution of lye and alum. Either mix rendered the wood of the safe noncombustible.
In 1833, C.J. Gayler patented the double fireproof chest, which consisted of two chests—one nested in the other—that enclosed air and non-conducting heat elements for better insulation.
In the end, none of the models through the 1830s provided protection against fire. Those that did failed to dispel the heat produced by fire, so while the safes didn’t catch on fire, their insides got as hot as a modern oven.
The mid-19th Century saw the true foundations of safe technology come to fruition in the UK. Cast and wrought iron chests were the standard but were improved with the addition of inner bodies and a filling that insulated the safe’s contents and emitted moisture to raise the flashpoint of any documents.
However, the patent for the safe was much disputed. William Marr filed a patent for the iron safe in 1834. Charles and Jeremiah Chubb, brothers and inventors living in Wolverhampton, England, were successful lock makers since 1818. In 1835, the Chubbs received a patent for a burglar-resistant safe. Thomas Milner of Liverpool filed a patent in 1840 in Liverpool.
Each patent holder saw varied success in the safe industry, but Milner became one of the biggest safemakers in Britain, manufacturing strong, plate iron safes. Milner’s safes were made of one-eighth-inch to three-sixteenth-inch sheet wrought iron.
As sturdy as they were, safes at the time were definitely fallible. The bolts in the safe were activated by the action of the keylock, so you were required to use a huge key. A big key meant a big keyhole, which made for easy manipulation by lock pickers or anyone with some gunpowder on hand. The greatest threat: the crowbar. The angled framework of the iron made it so that the rivets were easily split where the body plates met. By driving a wedge or crowbar into the split, you could easily pry off the safe’s back and side panels or front door.
The fact that it was so easy to crack a safe made for a wide string of safe robberies, and the Cornhill Robbery was the straw that broke the camel’s back and called for a swath of improvements to the existing safe’s structure. Just some of the people who implemented improvements include:
- Walter Henry Tucker patented large lock bolts connected to the door, what we know today as a lockcase. This made for a stronger door that could better resist prying and blunt force. The stronger lockcase became standard practice and still exists in safes today.
- Samuel Whitfield patented a geared mechanism that screwed the door directly into the safe’s body through a series of interlocking bolts and staples around all four sides of the door.
- Thomas Milner, with assistance from Manchester Police Detective John Sutcliffe, developed a patent on anti-wedging blocks, which prevented easy prying.
- Samuel Chatwood made significant improvements to the safe’s design in 1860 by coming up with the idea for two separate bodies, one nested in the other, creating a gap that was then filled with Franklinite and cast steel. A waved edge on the door frame offered no clear line of penetration for a crowbar or wedge.
- Henry Brown, an African American inventor, created a forged metal box built for storing and preserving paper documents that could resist accidents and fire. The box could be secured via lock and key. What eventually became known as the strongbox was patented in 1886.
The growth of technology led to further design improvements. Riveting was the main method of assembly until 1920. With the introduction of arc welding, manufacturers could weld the back plate flush with the body. The invention of the box press in 1905 allowed manufacturers to bend a single steel plate into shape. Concrete became the barrier material of choice in the 1930s, offering extensive protection from impact.
All of these improvements led to the safes of today, which are as durable and secure as ever, offering significant protection from fire and theft.