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"I never got into blowing safes. This system is far better than blasting."
Speaking is a convicted safecracker living in a mid-western prison. I agreed to protect his identity, so call him Jack. "Eight or ten seconds is all I need to ge the money and go," he says of his technique. "I don't deal in minutes."
Outside prison, jAck was a "creeper." He would walk confidently into an office or restaurant at the height of the business day, find the safe and lean against it while he delicately spun the combination dial. Two out of ten times, he says, he found the safe sufficiently unlocked for him to finish the combination.
Jack's specialty is one branch of safecracking, a crime that has contributed much to American movie and television plots. Most safecracking relies heavily on tools and arcane knowledge. A related villainy, vaultbreaking, has much in common. Their techniques, ever improving, have kept safe and vault manufacturers busy replacing obsolete equipment, and their histories illustrate how competition forces technology to advance.
First, some terminology. A vault is an armored strong room; banks and jewelry companies use them. Today a typical vault has walls of steel-reinforced concrete one foot thick. The 3-1/2-inch-thick door is opened by dialing the proper combination, but only when a time lock permits.
Safes fall into two types: fire-resistant, concrete-insulated sales for records, and burglar-resistant money safes. A money safe usually includes a combination lock on the door, bolts to hold the door closed, walls of hardened steel and copper, and a "relocking" device to thwart attacks on the lock.
Safecrackers and vaultbreakers borrow techniques from the latest scientific breakthroughs as well as from the old-time burglar. Novices can find enough old or cheap safes to make a living; they use tools common to home workshops. Penetrating tough safes and vaults, however, requires special equipment: torches, high explosives and industrial drills. No metal or stone can hold out indefinitely against these. But burglars need time, many weekends in some cases, because tough walls slow them down and good alarms call police before the job is done.
The push and pull between manufacturers and criminals in an ancient contest, and no final victory is in sight. Even the rise of computer crime and armed robbery has not eliminated the lure of caged cash. One recent innovation by burglars is so effective that I agreed to reveal nothing of what the police told me.
Safecracking and vaulbreaking are at least as old as the pyramids and burial chambers of Egypt. By 1000 B.C. burglars had plundered all but one of the tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. They broke into the burial chamber of Cheops' Great Pyramid just 400 years after the pharaoh's death.
For securing homes and storerooms, the Egyptians invented the first known door lock. The householder inserted a three-foot-long key studded with pegs into a large hollow bolt holding his door shut. The pegs raised hidden pins that held the bolt fast. Pulling on the key freed the bolt and the door was free to open.
The next real advance was Roman: notched and grooved--or warded--locks of iron or bronze construction. (The principle survives today in the locks on the bathroom doors of many older houses.) Some keys were small enough to carry in the palm, or a finger ring--particularly handy since togas had no …