Safes met an urgent need for safe storage of money in a time of prosperity in much of the world.
Many conditions contributed to the economic growth of Britain from the 17th century on. Agriculture became more efficient and expanded rapidly, as did steel production. Then came the expansion of transport routes such as railways and steamships, which in turn allowed the expansion of international trade and the British East Asia Company.
The colonies in India, Africa and North America also provided capital to institutions and private individuals. All this cumulative wealth led to an urgent need for secure safes and vaults.
The United States and Britain were the leading safe manufacturing nations in the 19th century.
At the 1867 World Exposition in Paris, an interesting competition arose between a British safe manufacturer, Chatwood, and an American counterpart, Herring. The two well-known manufacturers wanted to prove how fail-safe their products were, particularly their ability to resist break-ins, and made a wager of 15,000 francs.
The first person to open his opponent’s safe and remove the contents would win. The safe-breakers were required to use the same types of tools and the same number of people, but otherwise they were free to manhandle the safes however they saw fit. After about four hours, the Americans had opened the British safe and removed the prize, while the American safe was still unopened. The victorious Herring safe, with the damage done by the break-in attempt, was then displayed in the mechanical gallery.
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Published 17 May 2011
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