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Murder Holes & Magnets: The History of Home Security

Home Security Murder Hole

These days, we've got it pretty good. We can talk to people on the other side of the world within seconds, have anything from takeout food to a plastic container of ladybugs sent straight to our doors, and leave home without taking all our valuables with us. But for a long time, people didn't have it so easy, and taking care of the important stuff — like home security — required some ingenuity. Read on to find out how we got from squeaky floors and sharp sticks to closed-circuit cameras and "protective beds."

Cricket Floors & Murder Holes: The Early Days

If you woke up a mummy and asked him to explain ancient home security systems, he'd have a lot to tell you. Of course, that would make you a grave robber, so he might not want to talk to you at all! This recap is a safer bet:

  • Ancient Romans used intricate metal locks to stop intruders, based off of cruder wooden Egyptian models from thousands of years earlier.
  • Ancient Japanese houses were built with purposefully squeaky floorboards, or "cricket floors," so that ninjas couldn't silently sneak in.
  • 1500 years ago, the Iraqw people of Tanzania used to dig their homes into the sides of slopes so that if the neighboring Maasai raided during the night, they'd be warned by footsteps overhead.
  • Ceaseless raids made Medieval Europe into a constant home security build-off, until kings were routinely surrounding themselves with moats, drawbridges, thick walls dotted with arrow slits, rows of pointy branches, and "murder holes," through which guards would pour boiling oil. A lot messier than an entry sensor — but it still sounds kind of fun, right?

Goodness Gracious Great Bells of Fire

From colonial times, and especially after the Industrial Revolution, large communities began flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic. With so many people living and working together, the every-man-for-himself mentality behind earlier security measures wasn't going to cut it anymore. Colonial Philadelphia invented the neighborhood watch when they passed a "safe streets" bill that authorized citizens to "go round ye town with a small bell in ye night time, to give notice of ye time of night and the weather, and [of] anie disorders or danger." Larger cities built centralized watchtowers so that sentries could look out for fires, and warn citizens and dispatch firefighters by ringing alarm bells. This system worked well until 1835, when New York City had such a huge blaze that all the sentries rang their alarms at once, the firefighters got confused, and 700 buildings burned down. The Big Apple reorganized, and other cities followed suit. By 1851, if you left a candle too close to your curtains, someone could spot the flames and hit a button on the local "call box," and an "emergency!" telegraph with a location code would buzz over to the central lookout post, who would call in the firefighters. Voila: a central monitoring system!

Pope-ular Mechanics & Holmes Security: The Birth of Electronic Security Systems

That was all well and good for chemical enemies, but when it came to burglars and break-ins, people had to make do with tripwires, mousetraps, and prayers — until Augustus Pope came along. In 1853, he patented a device that wired a series of electromagnets to a large vibrating bell. You attached pairs of magnets to your door, and when someone opened the door, it closed a circuit that set off the bell. Others improved the design, and eventually a New England businessman named Edwin Holmes mass-produced it and sold it around the region, with the help of a tiny model system that he installed in a dollhouse. When he had put in enough systems, Holmes took a leaf out of the fire brigades' book, piggy-backed off infrastructure laid down by the growing telephone companies, and established central alarm monitoring stations in Boston and NYC.

Smartphones and Wireless Wonders

Today, thanks to automated home security systems, internet connections, and GSM cellular, you can leave your home and still keep an eye on it. Sensor networks can detect intrusion, sound an alarm, and alert you and your monitoring center. In addition to critical home safety, these systems are offering consumers the power to arm and disarm their systems remotely, get up-to-the-second data on any alarm activity, and even get temperature reads from inside the home. If you assign different PINs to different people in your life, your system can even tell you who's coming in and out of your home! If the ancient Egyptians could see us now, they'd probably worship us — but we really owe it to them. No matter what your home requires, odds are there's a home security system out there for you that's more effective than a moat — and we have a world's worth of centuries and civilizations to thank for that.

SimpliSafe blogger extrodaniare Cara Giaimo

Cara Giaimo

A man's home is his castle, as they say, and no matter what kind of castle you have, I'm here to help you fortify it. When I'm not blogging, you can usually find me running, jamming with friends, or making strange types of ice cream.

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