Sunday, February 17, 2019

“The Success of the American Lockpicker,”

From Cabinet Magazine:
I cordially concur with you in the prayer, that by God’s blessing this undertaking may conduce to the welfare of my people, and to the common interests of the human race, by encouraging the arts of peace and industry, strengthening the bonds of union among the nations of the earth, and promoting a friendly and honourable rivalry in the useful exercise of the faculties which have been conferred by a beneficent Providence for the good and the happiness of mankind.
—From Queen Victoria’s remarks at the opening of the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations, 1 May 1851
Delivered on a fine spring afternoon before an audience of some twenty-five thousand, Victoria’s brief inaugural oration for the Great Exhibition marked the official opening of one of the grandest and most ambitious peacetime endeavors of the nineteenth century, and what was to become a watershed event in the history of the burgeoning modern age.
Over the next five months, more than six million visitors would pass along the soaring allées of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace—a sunlit citadel of iron and glass erected over twenty-one acres of London’s Hyde Park—to view over one hundred thousand displays of artistic, commercial, scientific, and mechanical achievement submitted by some fourteen thousand exhibitors from Britain and her colonies, from continental Europe, and from the United States. The first “world’s fair” for a world then becoming aware of its increasingly global character, the Great Exhibition was foremost a prideful celebration of the British Empire’s cultural and industrial superiority. Yet even as it served to physicalize the host nation’s longstanding preeminence on the world stage, the exposition also offered early glimpses of its denouement. It enacted the “friendly and honourable rivalry” between Britain and her economic competitors in a broadly public context, as spectacle and even a kind of entertainment, and with the real (if generally thought to be unlikely) risk that she might be judged by that public to be inferior to her upstart rivals for technological and economic dominance.

Accounts of the day do not record whether Alfred Charles Hobbs was among the crowd assembled for the Queen’s dedication speech, but the young American locksmith would no doubt have heard in Victoria’s words an invitation to just the kind of challenge he had hoped to find on his first trip abroad. Hobbs had come to London as a representative of the New York firm of Day & Newell, which was exhibiting as part of the exposition’s American department. (Located in a prominent spot at the far western end of the building’s central nave, the US display was an elaborate affair that featured, among other things, a life-sized section of Nathaniel Rider’s new suspension truss bridge, a twelve-foot-high ziggurat fashioned from Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized India rubber, and, to serenade visitors, a grand pipe organ draped with an American flag and surmounted by an enormous sculpture of a bald eagle.) For his part, Hobbs had brought with him a more modest, if no less extraordinary artifact: his boss Robert Newell’s celebrated Parautoptic lock, a piece of machinery designed to compete with, and surpass, the security devices available at the time in Britain, generally agreed to be the finest in the world. Hobbs’s plan was not only to promote the benefits of Newell’s lock, but to do so by publicly demonstrating the insufficiency of its competitors. As it turned out, his method for accomplishing this goal became one of the most talked-about subplots in the story of the Great Exhibition.
• • •
Public excitement over the Exhibition did not abate following its grand debut and the major London newspapers dutifully covered the comings-and-goings in Hyde Park on a regular basis, and in exacting detail—announcing various daily events associated with the fair; recording the opinions of important personages; noting the arrival of visitors from abroad; and even cataloguing the contents of the Crystal Palace lost-and-found (“3 umbrella cases, 4 rings, 8 fans, 1 silver watch and guard, 1 operaglass, 2 toothpicks, 1 thimble…”). Four months into the show, the 7 September 1851 edition of the News of the World still devoted nearly five thousand words to the news from Crystal Palace, trumpeting everything from the visit of “1000 workmen from Sunderland … accompanied by the Mayor of that town,” to the arrival of an expedition of “Piedmontese artisans” come to inspect the “wonders of the Crystal Palace,” and sneeringly reporting the opening of several “packages of articles … recently arrived from India” the contents of which, “being of the rudest possible manufacture, are extremely interesting as illustrating the state of society among the hill tribes in the province of Bhangalhore.”

Near the top of the day’s digest was an item headed “The Success of the American Lockpicker,” regarding the contentious activities of none other than Mr. A. C. Hobbs of New York:...