IMechE membership register showing the handwritten entry for A. C. Hobbs.

THE IMECHE, THE GREAT EXHIBITION AND THE GREAT LOCK PICKING DEBATE

Black and white line drawing showing the entrance to the Crystal Palace.
The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park; home to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Between 1st May and 15th October 1851, the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” more commonly known as the “Great Exhibition” took place in Hyde Park. The Great Exhibition offered the opportunity for many eminent engineers and engineering firms to display the products of their labour to the world.

The occasion of the Great Exhibition prompted the Institution’s first London based meeting which was held in the Society of Arts’ Adelphi Rooms on 30th June.

The IMechE meetings allowed for papers on engineering advances to be presented to attendees with the opportunity afterwards for discussion. Attendees of the first London meeting were presented with the paper: “On the progress of improvements in locks in the United States of America” by Paul Hodge of London. This proved to be a particularly pertinent subject.

A figure showing the Newell lock presented as part of the paper on American Locks.

Lock picking competition was fierce among manufacturers wishing to present their lock as being the most trustworthy. An American lock manufacturer, Alfred Charles Hobbs, attended the Great Exhibition where he had taken up the challenge of picking the Chubb ‘Defender’ lock – one of the most dependable of the time. This Hobbs achieved in just 17 minutes.

Both Hobbs and Chubb later attended the IMechE’s first London meeting and witnessed the presentation of the paper on American locks after which there was much discussion. The discussion was dominated not by the paper itself but by the circumstances surrounding the lock picking. Mr Chubb felt he had been treated unfairly and was unhappy with the way in which the lock had been procured from him. Two meeting attendees had witnessed the picking at the Great Exhibition and believed the lock had not been tampered with in any way.

The Chairman of the meeting twice had to remind those present that the object of the paper was to discuss the relative merits of the American lock design before concluding that the debate would be best settled by the appointment of a committee independent to the Institution, “to avoid involving the Institution in any contest of mechanical skill.”

Hobbs later became a Member of the IMechE joining in 1859 before resigning his membership having returned to America.

IMechE membership register showing the handwritten entry for A. C. Hobbs
IMechE membership register showing the entry for A. C. Hobbs

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

The Proceedings of the IMechE records the first London meeting and the resulting debate and can be accessed here: http://www.imeche.org/my-account/non-ssl/Proceedings [IMechE member login required]

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