The Joy Lock Club

Schuyler Towne can pick a lock faster than just about anyone. Now he’s planning to break into the big time.

Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Picking a lock requires the manual genius of a Houdini. You have to have the kind of sensitivity that allows your hand to “see” inside the device’s tiny machinery. Most locks involve a system of pins, and to crack them you first insert an itty-bitty tension wrench into the keyhole. Then, with your other hand, you use a tiny pick to explore the innards, feeling your way along by tapping the pins and waiting for a shiver of response. In this manner, you figure out how to configure the pins in the exact zigzag pattern they’d assume if the key were inserted. Once you hit on the pattern, the wrench jumps in your hand and the lock pops open. For a certain kind of person — Schuyler Towne, for instance — this moment provides a crazy rush of adrenaline.

In 2006, Towne was an obscure Somerville art boy in love with locks — Schlages, Yales, and Masters. For fun, he’d spend 14 hours a day “solving” them without key or code, at ever-faster speeds. Towne would lose himself in the wee labyrinths inside the gizmos, whiling away his days in a lock trance. He was constantly trying to get rid of anything that interrupted his conversation with the metal, so he’d take the standard tools of the lock-picking craft and sand them down, redesigning them to better “hear” the lock’s miniature components.

Towne would practice everywhere. He’d attack a lock while walking down the street, or pull one out of his vest at work, or twiddle away over at a pub in Allston, giving free lessons and entertaining the bartenders. He came to think of himself as an ambassador to the world of locks, perhaps channeling his ancestor Henry Towne, the 19th-century Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company mogul who transformed locks from exclusive luxuries into products so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Most of us, in fact, don’t think about locks at all these days.

Schuyler Towne, though, has plans to change that.

In recent years, recreational lock picking has attracted thousands of fans.  And Towne’s made a fan or two himself. Recently, Amanda Palmer — the spit-curled rock star and Boston native — asked him to open for her band, the Dresden Dolls. He has become the forensics expert for Crime Bake, a cabal of New England mystery writers.  And Towne’s skill has generated attention in the shadowy world of “penetration testing,” in which hacking professionals get paid to break into vaults and computer facilities in order to detect weak spots in corporate security.

Lock picking has now spawned two confederations (The Open Organisation of Lockpickers — a.k.a. TOOOL — and Locksport International) and about a dozen clubs around the country. The clubs tend to work on the Dungeons and Dragons model: Guys show up with pizza and a case of Diet Coke, then huddle around a table, engrossed in their miniature universe. A few times a year, though, American lock pickers get a chance to throw down at a competition. These races usually take place in back rooms at computer-security gatherings, like the Def Con Hacking Conference. They started off years ago as sideshows — a way to bond with buddies and coworkers. The contests back then were straightforward, with the racers sitting across a table from one another, seeing who could pick a lock the fastest. But nowadays the sport has grown more elaborate, and the competitions can play out like magic shows. For instance, to compete for the title of Gringo Warrior, you must break out of a simulated Mexican prison, overpower a guard, and then crack into a file cabinet to retrieve a fictional passport.

Towne adores the pageantry of this kind of event — it gives him reason to hope that lock picking can be so much more than a hacker hobby. He dreams of creating a new American sport. Lock picking, he’s sure, will be bigger than competitive eating. It could be bigger, even, than underwater hockey.

 

Less than a year after he started playing with locks, Towne turned pro — or as pro as anyone can go in an unofficial sport — flying to Europe to compete in international competitions. “The best lock picker in the world is a German dentist,

Dr. Manfred,” Towne says. “I beat the number two lock picker in the world, but then I was immediately ousted by Dr. Manfred. He’s a fantastic, quiet, incredible picker. He schooled me a couple of years ago when I had to go head-to-head against him.”

But Towne fared better against another German, a hulking giant whose nom de lock was the Arthurmeister. The Teuton — over 6 feet tall and crowned by a mullet — sneered and yelled for cigarettes in the middle of the contest. The Arthurmeister was one of the top lock pickers in the world, and Towne was just a kid, but to everyone’s surprise — most especially to Towne’s — the kid won.

After that, Towne toured like a career athlete. He hopped around security conferences in the United States, picking up titles — like Locksport Wizard, which is awarded for the fastest show of “blind” picking. (The racers have to pick locks that are hidden inside of burlap bags.) By 2010, he had become one of the preeminent lock pickers in America. Which led him to his Michael Jordan moment. He decided to start a company to produce “sports gear,” kits that would include sample locks and an array of custom-designed tools to pick them. His plan was to create a secret weapon for lock pickers who want to shave a few seconds off their competition time. “I won my first American Open by three seconds,” he says, explaining that the slim edge “was all about having the right tool.”

So last summer he posted a video appeal on the website Kickstarter, staring straight into the camera as he asked for an investment of $6,000 to launch his company. In the video, Towne looked like a 15-year-old kid wearing a pasted-on beard. He was, in fact, 27, and the beard was real. Within weeks, he had more than $87,000 in advance orders and seed money. In fact, so much cash was pouring in that he decided he’d better shut off the spigot.

Which is how in December 2010 Towne has come to find himself bustling around a Somerville garage, unpacking a shipment of door locks that have just come in from China. The “practice locks” are to be part of the kits that more than a thousand customers have ordered. (Several states have banned the possession of lock-picking kits — a.k.a. burglary tools — but Towne doesn’t worry about that. Here in Massachusetts, he’s free to carry shivs and picks.) Towne opens a cardboard box with a penknife, then tips it over. Brass hardware pours out, making a sound like money — that lovely ping, ping, ping of coins cascading from a slot machine.

Today, Towne is also working furiously to prepare the next issue of his magazine, NDE (for Non-Destructive Entry), which reports on the world of safe cracking, lock hacking, handcuff shimming, and the like. The magazine reads like the Us Weekly of hardware security, all breathless enthusiasm, and it features porn-worthy photos of lock parts.
Towne has decided to knock off his two tasks at the same time: He’s asked a few friends to help him unpack the locks that will eventually go into his kits, but before he sends them off, he’s going to use the enormous pile as a prop in the photo that will emblazon the cover of his magazine.

He paws through the collection to find the sexiest locks. A kid named Sean — a rabid lock-picking fan — peels off his sweater and kneels down, preparing to squirm into the jumble of metal. He’ll be the cover model.

As he arranges the hardware on Sean’s stomach, Towne tells him: “We’ll put you in the Desmos.” Sean offers up his wrists, and Towne snaps a pair of thick handcuffs onto them. The strobe light pops as the photographer captures it all. Flash! Flash! Flash!

 

Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Imagine what it would be like if you could not lock a door. For most of human history, door locks existed, but they were so badly designed that anyone could break through them in a few minutes. Then in the 1800s, the underdeveloped technology bloomed into an art. Craftsmen began manufacturing rococo locks fashioned like lions, dragons, and mermaids, sculptures that sprung open to reveal secret keyholes.

The salesmen hawking these treasures became magicians, putting on shows for their clients. A lock man, for instance, might stop into a bank and declare that its security system was a joke: “This could be easily defeated by villains,” he would announce, directing a disgusted glance at the lock. Then, as the bank manager stood by, the visitor would diddle with the lock and the vault door would swing open — revealing all the bank’s holdings. The salesman would then offer to install his own “uncrackable” device. One shop window in London featured an enormous padlock crowned with a challenge: The Artist who can make an Instrument that will pick or Open this Lock, shall Receive 200 Guineas The Moment it is produced. Sure enough, somebody soon opened it and won the prize money.

In other words, as soon as real locks appeared on the scene, people wanted to outwit them, people who could be considered the world’s first hackers.

But even as locks evolved into elaborate puzzles, they still had major design flaws. “It’s remarkable to think that, not so long ago, when you would heft your key ring it would be nearly two pounds,” Towne says. “All of the keys were huge cylinders. They had to be long enough to pass all the way through a door.”

Then in the 1850s, an inventor named Linus Yale Jr. opened his first shop, in the western Massachusetts town of Shelburne Falls, and changed all of that. Yale had learned his craft by picking locks, cracking them both to prove they didn’t work and to learn their secrets. From there, he began to create locks that required no physical key at all; instead, you dialed in a series of numbers to release the pins. They were the precursors to the combination padlocks we still use to secure our gym bags and bikes.

Massachusetts, of course, has always been home to the Linus Yales of the world — to legendary phreakers, zippies, white hats, black hats, and every other genus of nerd wunderkind who could crack into a safe, or the Pentagon. Schuyler Towne is just the latest iteration in a lineage: In a place with this much competitive brainpower, hackers are forever lining up to demonstrate their mastery of technology, however high or low.

In the 1990s, they graduated from MIT, moved into sprawling clubhouses, and met up at backyard parties in Watertown or Somerville, where they traded tips for tunneling through websites and taking control of corporate or government computers. The hackers formed posses, the most famous of which was The L0pht (a.k.a. the Loft).

The L0pht was like “midnight basketball for hackers. It kept us out of trouble,” says Christien Rioux, a.k.a. DilDog, who is one of Towne’s mentors and heroes. In 1998, several L0pht guys testified before the U.S. Senate that they could shut down the Internet in half an hour — a warning shot intended to wake Congress to the enormous security flaws in the information superhighway.

But when I meet him this spring, DilDog has gone corporate, sort of: He wears his hair in a respectable buzz and hands me his business card; he’s the chief scientist and cofounder of Veracode, a company that detects the holes in software. His wife, Stacy Thayer (Ms. DilDog?), runs a yearly confab for the security industry called Source Boston, where hackers turned suits gather to schmooze. “Boston is where security was born,” DilDog tells me, and that’s why he and his wife named their gathering Source. Thayer adds that the hacker culture has mellowed in the past decade. “The hackers in a basement are now executives — like my husband,” she says. “Everyone’s grown up.”

Or, to be more accurate, the L0pht guys have grown up. They’ve made way for a new generation of hacker kids. While the L0pht crew vibrated with goth energy, today’s young hackers radiate a homespun sweetness. Many of them tinker with software, of course. But they also bake their own bread. They knit their own sweaters, using yarn harvested from a friend’s sheep. They operate out of kid-friendly “hacker spaces,” like Sprout, a geek clubhouse off a side street in Somerville that’s open to anyone who wants to, say, help build a robot. Schuyler Towne has made Sprout his home base. He shares the space with engineers, woodworkers, and a guy who patches together Frankenstein bikes out of spare parts.

To Towne, the L0pht guys seem like the warriors of ancient legend, roaming the Earth back in the misty nether-era of the 20th century.

When Towne finally met DilDog at a barbecue several years ago, it was like standing on the porch beside a Norse god. Best of all, instead of shaking his hand, DilDog wrapped him in a bear hug. “I snuck off and called a friend,” Towne remembers. “I said, ‘Oh my God, DilDog hugged me.’ He was my hero.”

 

Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Photograph by Joel Benjamin

A month after his magazine photo shoot, Towne is wearing a droopy sweatshirt and wilting into a desk chair at Sprout.

“How goes world domination?” I ask.

“I’m freaking out,” he says, and then barks with laughter. He’s overwhelmed and overcommitted, gobsmacked by his own success. His investor-customers are livid. They sent in their money months ago but have yet to receive their kits. “I have people calling up and screaming at me,” Towne says. He has no desire to run a manufacturing concern. How did he end up in charge of a company? It was supposed to be all about the locks, but now his life has been eaten by capitalism. He wishes he could spend more time at competitions. And doing research. He’s become fascinated with the history of locks in the 1800s. He wants to write a book about his ancestor Henry Towne.

Lately, he’s also begun to worry about how to make lock picking more telegenic — not that anyone has offered, as of yet, to put the sport on TV. But one day, ESPN might call. And he wants to be ready. He insists that lock picking would be the perfect “demonstration sport” to add to the Olympics — one of those I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-a-sport sports that sometimes fill dead air on TV. After all, past Olympic sideshows have included glima, the traditional art of Icelandic wrestling. And pigeon racing. And roller hockey. And ballooning.

Ballooning! So why not locksport?

Still, Towne agonizes. What if lock picking finally wins its TV moment, and then bombs? Some of the competitions are “superboring for the general public,” he says, because a match can involve a bunch of guys bent over worktables, squeak-squeak-squeaking with smidgens of wire, which is “horrifically not visual” for spectators. That’s why he’s reinventing locksport as a dark drama, like that game where you have to bust out of a simulated prison. It’s meant to be cinematic, disturbing, and compulsively watchable.

As he enumerates these worries, Towne is swiveling back and forth in his chair, glancing occasionally at his cell phone, where the messages are piling up. He has yet to produce any prototypes for his tool kits. He’s still waiting on another shipment of locks from China. And most frustrating, his chief employee keeps screwing up his instructions. She works out of her house in Colchester, Vermont, sewing the cases for the lock-picking kits. But she keeps making mistakes. Towne says he had no idea she was so forgetful — “But it’s not Alzheimer’s-style forgetting,” he hastens to assure.

The employee’s name? Mom.

 

A couple of months later, in April, I push through the doors of the Seaport Hotel and wander around Source Boston, the computer-security conference run by DilDog and his wife. Towne has told me he’ll be here, hosting a “lock-picking village” for attendees. A lock-picking village? I picture a Disney-esque town of elves who perch on toadstools as they cobble and tinker. But what I find in the lounge area of the hotel couldn’t be more different. A DJ is spinning techno music, while a guy in a skinny tie dances with nunchucks and 20 people mill around tables piled with handcuffs, locks, wiring diagrams, and diabolical mystery boxes covered in switches. “Logic candy,” Schuyler declares, sweeping one arm toward the tables to indicate the smorgasbord of puzzles that he’s laid out.

“How’s your empire?” I ask him.

He laughs and tells me that he still hasn’t sent a single kit to any of his 1,200 customers — the manufacturing process has turned out to be so much more complicated than he ever anticipated. But he’s exuberant, braying with laughter as he describes the train wreck of business failures. It’s clear that in the past few months, he has wrestled with all those worries about unfulfilled orders and has come out the other side. He struts around the room, twirling a Medeco lock on his finger like a six-shooter, holding court among the lock fans, absolutely carefree.

I ask him what has changed. Why isn’t he angsting? And what about all the hate mail from his customers?

He says that he hit bottom in midwinter. And then, in the midst of his crisis, he had an idea: He released another video. In this one, he stared straight into the camera — shamed, politician-style — and explained that mistakes were made. He described, with endearing candor, the whole bolluxed-up mess his startup company had become.

His investors loved the video, he says. They felt involved, caught up in the Capitalist Adventures of Schuyler Towne. That’s when Towne realized what he is really selling. His investors want their tool kits, of course, but what they truly crave is the click of insight. Even if they themselves can’t defeat a seven-pin tubular lock, they hope to feel the vicarious thrill of outsmarting the metal. It isn’t something that can really be sold. And yet Towne has found a way. He tells me that he’s now giving his fans lots of videos, tutorials, blog posts — all so that they feel engaged in his saga.

And within a few months, he says, he might even be able to sell a real-life product, too. He shows me a brand-new prototype on the table, a canvas kit filled with an array of picks. Just recently, he finished a design and found a manufacturer. He’s back on track.

Late that afternoon, a dozen or so people seat themselves around the tables, twiddling the locks as they wait for Towne to teach them how to use the tools. He stands before them and delivers his lecture: “The first time you open a lock you’re not going to know why it happened,” he says. “This is the richest conversation you can have with your fingers. This level of tactile feedback is like nothing you’ve done before.”

Towne has worked himself into full-on 19th-century-style jeremiad. He’s prowling around, sermonizing, his words bouncing off the padded walls of the hotel conference room like he’s a come-to-Jesus preacher. “Residential security is nothing but symbolism,” he laments. “Until we change that, we will have forensics tradition in this country.”

While he preaches, his new pupils bow their head. They’re noodling with locks, trying different picks, poking, probing, testing. Finally, Towne wears himself out and drops into a chair. Soon, he, too, is fiddling with some hardware, attacking it with delicate metal tools. He has fallen uncharacteristically silent. In a trance, he picks up a brass part — what experts call the “bible” — in the lock. He’s rebuilding the whole mechanism from scratch. I’ve never seen him look so content. In the end, nothing else matters: It’s all about the locks.

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  • Dildog’s Dad

    Congratulations Pagan on a very well written and insightful article. You are a gifted writer.

  • Roberta

    Linus Yale, Jr., was born in Salisbury, New York. He learned his craft at his father’s knee at his father’s lock shop in Newport, New York. He moved to Massachusetts when he was about 40 years old because his wife, Catherine, was from Shelburne Falls. Linus even died in New York. So you can have Catherine but Linus is ours.

  • Roberta

    Is he any relation to the famous lock maker, Henry Towne?