157 years ago today, the burglar alarm was born in Boston

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On Feb. 21, 1858, Edwin Holmes, co-owner of a Tremont Row sewing store and renowned for his hoop-skirt crafting skills, installed an electric burglar alarm in his Boston home. It was the start of a new age in the home security industry.


As electrical alarms goes, this was as simple as one can get — less today’s iPhone-integrated smart alarm and more of a burglar telegraph machine. As a matter of fact, it was based directly on the telegraph. That technology worked by linking electricity from batteries with mechanical energy made by electromagnetism (using batteries to send electrical currents to create magnets), to send electrical impulses down a wire and make distant magnets attract and release on demand, ergo: clicking.

Holmes’s alarm worked similarly, except instead of sending signals from a circuit linking Washington to Baltimore, it linked doors and windows to  a little bell connected to an electromagnet. And instead of making a tapping sound when the door or window opened, it sent a jolt of electricity down the wire and rang that bell. Ding.

Holmes, it must be said, did not invent this little piece of machinery. That honor goes to the Somerville-based Unitarian pastor named Augustus Russell Pope, who was by many accounts hardworking, beloved, and particularly well-versed in physics and mechanics. “He delivered many lectures before conventions of teachers, for the Board of Education, in which he displayed much ingenuity: one particularly, on telegraphs, was highly commended,” recounts an 1864 Harvard collection of alumni obituaries.

Pope had begun tinkering with his burglar alarm idea in 1850, tried it in his own home and a few others and even successfully patented it in 1853 — but in the end, his “duties as a Clergyman” and ailing health prevented his ever taking it to the next level.

Pope died far too young at 39 — but before he did, he transferred the rights to his patent over to Holmes, for the price of $8,000 in notes and between $1,500 to $1,800 in cash, depending on where you look. And with that patent in hand, Holmes the businessman did what Pope could not. Although not in Boston.

After installing his alarm in his house, Holmes had trouble drumming up the kind of business he envisioned. Bostonians just didn’t have enough crime to overcome public apprehension for electricity. But New York? Ahh, there was a den of iniquity if ever there was. As his son, Edwin T. Holmes recounts in a 1917 account of his and his father’s business feats, A Wonderful Fifty Years:

“It immediately occurred to Mr. Holmes that New York ought to be a better field for protection against burglars … Mr. Holmes quickly made up his mind that all the burglars there were in the country were in New York, and so decided to bring his family here, which he did in 1859, locating in Brooklyn, where most new England people settled, possibly feeling safer to be near Henry Ward Beecher’s church.”

Which certainly marks one of very few times when a family up and moves not for the schools, but for the thievery. Happily for the family, according to a letter that Holmes the younger quotes in the same book, Mrs. Holmes was on board with the deal:

“I feel that you will make ten thousand dollars out of that burglar alarm patent.”

Once in New York, things did take off for Holmes. He found that New Yorkers were particularly eager to protect themselves against assassins and murderers, even more than burglars, and advertised per that sensibility in an 1861 pamphlet, “A Treatise Upon the Best Method of Protecting Property From Burglars, and Human Life From Midnight Assassins,” which also included a list of more than 70 subscribers already signed up. A second pamphlet from 1868 boasted over 1000 subscribers, plus a Yelp-worthy collection of 200 testimonials, likely very much along the lines of the below reviews that Holmes Jr. includes in A Wonderful Fifty Years:

“I have had Holmes’ Burglar Alarm Telegraph in my house three years. Three attempts at robbery have been made within that period, each of which would have been successful had it not been for this Alarm. I would not be without it one month for a thousand dollars. It is impossible to raise a window or open a door from the outside, after the Alarm is set, without awakening every inmate of my house,” — P. T. Barnum, 1866.
“Mr. Holmes—My Dear Sir:—Since you put into my house your Yankee Telegraph for detecting thieves, I have been twice visited by burglars, who, in both instances, heard the Alarm Bell and thereupon made so sudden a retreat that it was vain to send after them either a pistol shot or a policeman. And I hope, sir, that you will fix one of the bells to the United States Treasury, to give warning of the approach of all the harpies.” — Theodore Tilton, 1868.

Business boomed, and over the years Holmes improved steadily on the system, adding electric lights and clocks to program the alarm, and establishing a central signal station for networks of alarms that could be watched over 24 hours a day by guards. Eventually, the usefulness of the devive was sufficient even for the lawful city of Boston, and so Holmes sent his son back to re-set up shop here—a feat that happened in record time after Holmes Jr. realized that he could piggyback the central alarm system right into the newly pre-existing telephone wires.

That, in turn, cemented a mutually beneficial relationship between Holmes’s company and Alexander Graham Bell’s that resulted in the creation of the first telephone exchanges, established the former as president of Bell Telephone Co., and helped in part to pave the way for the expansion of the both phone and security arenas into the multibillion-dollar industries they are today.