Vault technology and Banks

A 1931 ad for a vent that can save Bank Vault prisoners’ lives!

Time to do some thinking about the technology of bank vaults… specifically in the time period I am setting this case in – August 1931.

By the way, the image on the left is from a blog called ModernMechanix that you really should check out for some really cool images from old magazines.

BANKS in 1931
Banking in 1931 as a result of now being a couple years into the Great Depression was a scary place. According to many sources, banks were going under left-right-and-center, and according to the Bank of England site:

In 1931 the United Kingdom left the gold standard; its gold and foreign exchange reserves were transferred to the Treasury. But their management was still handled by the Bank and this remains the case today.

Different banks reacted to this economic downturn in different ways, but out of the so-called ‘big-five’ in the UK, Westminister Bank seems to have fared amongst the best. Westminister Bank no longer exists, having been merged with National Provincial Bank in 1970. According to the RBS history page, “…by 1939 there were 1,100 branches,” so that works for my story well.

Time locks became common in the late 1800s, and by the early 1900s, banks had figured out how to stop robbers from using nitroglycerin to burn through their locks. Interestingly, as a result of the economic crisis, banks in the 1920s began building very thick vaults as much as to deter robbers as to stop the angry mobs of unemployed and indigent.

Despite the new security measures, these vaults were still vulnerable to yet another new invention, the cutting torch. Burning oxygen and acetylene gas at about 6,000 °F (3,300 °C), the torch could easily cut through steel. It was in use as early as 1907, but became widespread with World War I. Robbers used cutting torches in over 200 bank robberies in 1924 alone. Manufacturers learned to sandwich a copper alloy into vault doors. If heated, the high thermal conductivity of copper dissipates the heat to prevent melting or burning. After this design improvement, bank burglaries fell off and were far less common at the end of the 1920s than at the beginning of the decade. – Wikipedia

Surprisingly, there are several Vault and Lock Manufacturers that have been around for a hundred years (much of this is taken from this website called The Definitive List of Safe Manufacturers):

Allied Safe and Vault: This Company’s origins go back to 1902 in Spokane and in 1948 they became Allied Safe and Vault. They were very successful in the postwar banking boom as suppliers of secure technology. Their watchwords are “Peace of mind” and they work hard to keep their customers on the technological edge. For general home-use safes, they have products like; composite safes and their insulated vault doors. For commercial use they offer products like: the TL-15 & 1L-30 burglary & fire resistant safes and the composite TR-30X6/TRTL-30X6. For the hospitality sector they offer hotel safes and related products. Allied Safe and Vault also offers gun safes and products for banks such as deal drawers.

Phoenix Safe: One of the oldest safe manufacturers in the United Kingdom, they can trace their origins back to 1799 in Liverpool where they built strongboxes for merchant fleets. Today they are recognized around the world for their secure products. In their burglary protection line, they have such products as the Phoenix Imperial 980 series and the Saracen 920 series. For fire protection they have such safes as the Fire Fighter 500 series and the Olympian 1200/1230 series. It you’re interested in data protection, they have the DATACARE 2000 series and the DATA COMMANDER 4620 series.

Browning: A household name for American firearms, this company has been in business since 1927. It was founded to market the non-military firearm designs of the world’s most prolific arms inventor, John Browning. It is currently a subsidiary of Fabrique Nationale De Herstal. They also manufacture gun safes. Their Premium line offers the Gold,Platinum Plus, Medallion and Silver series. They also have less expensive Value Safes and Specialty Safes. Browning also offers safe accessories for upkeep and care

Schwab Corp: Founded in 1872 in Lafayette, Indiana; Schwab is a globally respected manufacturer of security products. For over 136 years they’ve been setting the standard for customer service and they have the most respected dealership network in the United States. In 2004 they introduced their patented Insulite insulation process which increased overall protection of fire files by 300%. In 2008 they were acquired by SentrySafe. Their product lines include; record safes, vault & safe room doors, media & data safes and their Schwab fire file cabinets.

I’m leaning towards using the Phoenix safe manufacturers for obvious reasons as they were based in the UK. At the time they were called the “Milners Safe Company of Liverpool” and according to the company website, were “among the best known British safe manufacturers from the 1850’s through to the 1970’s, when rationalisation of the safe industry led to the loss of many of the traditional manufacturers.”

This, my friends, is going to be a fun scene to write. Allons-y!

Author: Angela Misri

Novelist, Digital Strategist & Journalist

2 thoughts on “Vault technology and Banks”

  1. As it happens, I have a fair amount of experience with antique safes, opening and repairing them. If you have any technical questions, feel free to contact me. Most of the modern hardened and drill resistant steels were developed during WWII, so prior to that the design philosophy tended towards bulk–lots of layers of conventional iron.

    Explosives wouldn’t be much use on a vault–any charge big enough to open the container would destroy the contents (shaped charges also not being in use then.) Manipulation or drilling (or the ever popular kidnap the bank manager and force him to open it) would be the preferred methods. With a time lock that cannot be opened outside of certain hours, drilling, either through the face of the container or tunneling through a wall–would be about the only option.

    A drill in ’31 would be hand cranked, so we are talking about a lot of time here–most successful vault penetrations took place over an extended weekend to give the crackers time to work.

    Vaults would equipped with relockers–devices that would release spring loaded pins to lock the bolts in place in response to a physical attack–so it would be vital for the thieves to know exactly how the door was constructed (and they were not standardized, doors would be custom built for the client, with the positions of the relevant structures deliberately randomized). They would need to get inside the vault long enough to make sketches or take photographs, or have access to the manufacturers original plans.

    Which is not to say that a vault of that period could not be penetrated with existing technology, many were. But it would be a major undertaking with a number of specialists involved.

    I love heists, and would be happy to help in any way I can on the details.

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