The Joy Lock Club

By Pagan Kennedy | Boston Magazine |

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.

[sidebar]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.


VIDEO: Schuyler Towne gives a step-by-step tutorial on locks and lock picking

  • 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?