Who Invented The Burglar Alarm?

Burglar alarms are so common around the world, that its difficult to imagine a time when there wasn’t such a thing as an “alarm” in the form of some device that either buzzes, bleats, screeches, clangs, or makes some kind of noise to provide us with a warning that some unwanted presence is in our personal space. 

This is often accompanied by some sort of flashing light, or message to reinforce the initial noise, in case we didn’t notice.  The purpose of an alarm is basically twofold.  One, it lets us know that we have been intruded upon, and, two, it notifies the intruder that anyone in the vicinity is aware of their presence.

In the broader sense, the word alarm is taken from the archaic word alarum, and could be used to refer to the toll of a bell, or a man on watch who would signify an intruder with shouts or cries, as in the case of a lookout sitting in a ship’s crow’s nest watching for other ships, land, or any other hazards that might pose a threat. 

It could also be a dog, perhaps man’s oldest alarm, who has historically been used to guard our most prized possessions.  The word “alarm” can also simply refer to a feeling one gets, as in a sense of foreboding.

crows-nest

In terms of the burglar alarm device itself, this was invented in 1850 and patented as “Improvement in Electro-magnetic Alarms” in Boston on June 21st,1853 by a man named Reverend Augustus Russell Pope

Pope was both a clergyman and an inventor, and he was adept at mechanics and physics and was known to give lectures on these subjects which made his ingenuity quite apparent. 

One of the subjects he was best known for was the telegraph, which, incidentally, was the basis for the technology behind the invention of the first burglar alarm. 

first-burglar-alarm-system

Whereas today’s alarms often make loud noises of all kinds, the first alarm system was actually a form of telegraph system, using batteries, electricity, current, and electromagnetism to send energy down a wire until it reached a bell, which would then ring. 

Or, more accurately, “ding”.  So, whereas a telegraph is known for sending messages across the country, this new alarm invention would “react”, so that if a window or door opened, the signal traveled down the wire and the bell would sound. 

Edwin Holmes burglar alarm
Edwin Holmes – known for popularizing the burglar alarm in the 1860’s

Sadly, Augustus Pope succumbed to illness in 1858, dying at the early age of 39, but not before selling the rights for his patented burglar alarm system to a businessman named Edwin Holmes. 

Holmes was the man responsible for the commercialization and popularization of the electromagnetic burglar alarm, as well as creating the first large-scale alarm network in the United States.

The Rise Of The Burglar Alarm

As with most inventions, there is an interesting story of its rise to popularity that took place behind the scenes.  Before his untimely death, Pope sold the alarm technology to Holmes for the tidy sum of about $10 000. 

Back in those times, this was indeed no small amount, and so clearly Holmes had faith that this invention would eventually be popular.  How did he know? 

We must assume that Edwin Holmes not only had faith in the novelty of this new alarm invention, but he must have also realized that crime in America was a problem that would need to be dealt with, and that people couldn’t always rely on the authorities to defend their homes for them.  In a way, today’s modern smart technology was born at this moment.

holmes electric burglar protection

Edwin Holmes certainly did not waste any time.  The year of Pope’s death, Holmes had installed an alarm in his own Boston home, and started venturing into the business of selling alarms to others who might see the need for such a warning system. 

This is where he met his first hurdle, which was that not enough people were interested in this new technology for him to make a go of it.  The problem, such as it was, was that there simply weren’t enough robbers and petty thieves in Boston for people to have any vested interest in such an invention.  The time was not yet right. 

This is where it struck Holmes that he needed to find a place where there was plenty of crime and criminals to test this new technology.

new york in 1850
New York in the mid-1800’s

It was only one year later, in 1859, that Edwin Holmes decided to relocate his family to Brooklyn, New York.  New York, being a veritable den of thieves, was the perfect place for Holmes to try to market his new product.  Holmes moved his family close to what is now Plymouth Church, located at 57 Orange Street, between Henry and Hicks. 

plymouth-church

At the time, the pastor of this church was Henry Ward Beecher, an enigmatic pastor who gave lively speeches and was in favor of various types of social reform, most notably abolition. 

Edwin Holmes moved his family near to the church in an strategic effort to protect himself and his family from the same robberies that he hoped his new invention would be able to capitalize on in the greater New York area.

In retrospect, Holmes’ strategy was a sound one. To many, a move to New York, a city growing in size and with increasing crime rates, may well have been considered unwise, but this move was business-minded and shrewdly executed.

criminals of new york 1800s
New York mug shots from the 1800’s

The proof was in the pudding, as usual.  Once Edwin Holmes started selling his alarm systems to New Yorkers, things started to pay off – big time.  This was, it must be said, due to New Yorkers dire but not unrealistic fear of any and all types of criminals, including a laundry list of perpetrators, assassins, burglars, thieves, murderers, and more. 

This is where Edwin Holmes took the opportunity to delivery his little flyer to many prospective customers, which he labeled as “A Treatise Upon the Best Method of Protecting Property From Burglars, and Human Life From Midnight Assassins”, AKA his new alarm system.  

augustus pope's first burglar alarm prototype
Augustus Pope’s prototype for the first burglar alarm

Holmes’ system was relatively simple to install, and was not cheap, but it worked.  In the years that passed, he continued to canvas New York with his ads, and he managed to gather many convincing testimonials, including this one by the famous P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus:

“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.

pt barnum
P.T. Barnum

In a few short years, Edwin Holmes had carved out a niche for his new invention and things were going well, which is to say, the alarms were effectively doing their job of preventing murders, rapes, and robberies.  By 1866, Holmes had successfully installed 1200 of his new alarm units, and business was booming. 

The innovation of Edwin Holmes, however, did not stop there.  By the year 1877, Holmes had set up the first network of alarms which was monitored by a central station in New York.  This became known as central station monitoring.

1897_Brooklyn_map
Map of Brooklyn 1897

Edwin’s son, Edwin Thomas, was also part of the family business, and it was he who realized that he could establish more alarm networks by using pre-existing telephone cables, rather than needing to lay down their own, and this lead to the country’s first large 700-alarm network, which he established in Boston, and Edwin Sr. then replicated in New York.  

By the way, much of this history can also be read about in much more depth in Edwin Thomoas Holmes’ excellent book called “A Wonderful Fifty Years”.

a wonderful fifty years by edwin t. holmes
Click to buy on Amazon

Ultimately, the senior Holmes became the president of the Bell Phone Company in 1878, and sold his interests in his alarm system in 1880 for a $100 000 US dollars. 

Here we can end the story of who invented the burglar alarm, as burglar alarms took on a life of their own, leading us to where we are today, with homes which have the potential to be almost completely automated, with all manner of smart anti-theft systems that can be controlled with the push of the button on our smart phone. 

What would Edwin Holmes, not to mention Augustus Pope, think of today’s world of automated home security?  We think its safe to say that they would be quite proud.

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