The History of the Burglar Alarm

first-alarm-systemEver wonder about the history of the burglar alarm? Okay, perhaps not. Now that we’ve brought it to your attention, though, you’re probably a wee bit curious about the background of this lone device which eventually created today’s booming home security industry. You may also be surprised to learn about the unique connection that the burglar alarm shares with the history and evolution of the telephone.

The Inventor

Originally patented by Unitarian minister Reverend Augustus Russell Pope in 1853, the first burglar alarm was a relatively simple electro-magnetic device. Battery operated; an open door would set a spring in motion, which would then cause a bell hammer to repeatedly strike a loud bell. Door and window sensors would later be created in order to connect these entry points to an alarm through a series of wires. Originally this was not the case, however, and individual alarm devices were needed for each window and door in a home.

The Visionary

Despite Pope being on record as the true creator, it was Edwin Holmes who is actually credited as being the father of today’s burglar alarm. Turns out that Reverend Pope was a great inventor, but ailing health and poor marketing skills prevented him from doing much more with his creation. It was Holmes who purchased Pope’s patent sometime between 1857 and 1858 and it was Holmes whose name is cemented in history for bringing the burglar alarm to the masses.

A door-to-door salesman turned shopkeeper specializing in household goods, Holmes did not originally plan on a career in the home security industry. Believing in the need for such a device though, he purchased the patent after his own business, which he shared with his brother, was declared insolvent by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Considering his own position, it can be said that Holmes really took a leap of faith with the burglar alarm and aren’t we all glad that he did?

The Home Security Industry is Born

It wasn’t long before Holmes established a brand new business centered around introducing the burglar alarm to the general public. The Holmes Burglar Alarm Company (later changed to the Holmes Electric Protective Company) initially catered to the Boston area, but soon expanded to several other cities. In several stories, it has been noted that Holmes regarded New York as being a haven for the well-to-do in addition to being a high crime area, particularly for burglaries. As his Massachusetts-based home security business continued to grow, he eventually moved his family to New York where he opened a new division of his company.

With a strong marketing background, Holmes was considered a master at convincing people that they needed burglar alarms both in their homes and at their businesses. At this same time, electricity was not yet widely used in households which were mostly still being lit by candles and gas lamps. That these very first burglar alarms were powered by electricity means that such a technology was not easily understood, nor was it regulated to protect consumers. Holmes would not be deterred by the public’s lack of experience with electricity and alarms, however, and went on to publish frightening accounts of big city crimes in order to illustrate the need for his product. His marketing campaigns proved to be quite successful and, eventually, Holmes had established a network of more than 1,000 burglar alarms in New York.

The Burglar Alarm’s Role in the Telephone’s History

Along with starting the first home security company, Edwin Holmes was also the first to install a telephone switchboard at his Boston offices before using a similar system in his New York office. Prior to his vision for a more effective system for business communication, Holmes used Alexander Graham Bell’s hand phone. With these early instruments, a caller used a special line to leave a message at what was known as a central station and an operator from that station used a separate line to then deliver that message to its intended recipient. This method resulted in multiple telephones physically being housed at a station for incoming and outgoing messages.

Holmes son, Edwin Thomas Holmes, however, soon realized that existing wiring for the alarm system at their own business (which were already being used for telephone communication during business hours) could also be used as a switchboard system where multiple phone lines could run through a single location on a switchboard and an operator could connect a hand phone to plug into any of these lines. Messages would still be relayed through an operator, but this unique way of wiring a system eliminated the physical need for multiple telephones and also allowed businesses to house their own switchboards.

For a time, Holmes served as president of Bell Telephone Company, which would later become American Telephone and Telegraph Company (today known as AT&T Corp). This same company eventually bought Holmes’ thriving home security business and the rest is, as they say, history.

All Eyes on You

Do you have anything to add about the history of the burglar alarm? What are your thoughts about the future of the home security industry? The home automation industry? We look forward to reading what you have to share in the space provided for your comments below.

Ralph Winn

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