Short-lived time lock companies - crushed through litigation, 1877 though 1882

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By 1877 the time locks of Sargent & Greenleaf, Yale and Hall's Safe & Lock were clearly an unmitigated commercial success and were the standard of vault security. A few smaller makers that produced equally high quality combination and key bank locks on a smaller scale designed their own time locks in a bid to gain a portion of this newly lucrative area. One only need to understand the immense profit that was to be had in a successful time lock business to appreciate the fierce competition and defense of market share it engendered. For example in 1875 a two movement time lock from the E. Howard company wholesaled to the buyer, say Consolidated or Yale for between $17.50 to $35.00. The completed time lock retailed in the range of $500.00. In the case of smaller safes this often amounted to a price greater than the cost of the safe. In addition to this profit, the time lock maker also sold an annual maintenance agreement to service the time lock to guarantee against failure and an expensive lockout due to the malfunction of the time lock. Records show this was in the range of $4.00 to $5.00 per year plus any additional charges for major refurbishments. Sargent & Greenleaf always made their movements in house and their margins were probably as great if not greater than those makers who depended on outside movement makers.

Why would owners of safes and vaults, mostly bankers and jewelers pay these sums? Prior to the 1850's safes could be broken into by skilled safe crackers through manipulation of the combination lock as was demonstrated by James Sargent against Yale's locks through the use of his Micrometer which could open the best combination locks of the day. He then went on to develop the Magnetic Bank Lock which was impervious to his own device. The alternative was brute force in the use of explosives or for the more refined robber, drilling of the safe. The advances in safe construction, hardened materials and combination lock design during the 1850's and their widespread adoption in the 1860's forced robbers to more drastic means. The "masked robbery" as it was known in the day was not what we would think of as masked desperados robbing a frontier bank during daylight hours. The first generation of robberies were nighttime affairs where the robbers would invade the home of the bank cashier or president and force him to divulge the combination to the safe. One must remember that this was before the time of widespread use central alarm or power generation systems or even telephones. Except for a few large city centers banks were in fairly rural areas where robbers could have the entire night to empty the safe. If the victim was lucky, he would be tied up, but sometime he was killed afterward, or in the case of a larger safe or vault shut into the vault and often left to suffocate by the time he was discovered. Needless to say the fear for personal safety and the huge amounts at stake soon convinced the banking industry of the value of the time lock. When a safe was equipped with such a device it was prominently advertised to deter would be robbers.

Of course market forces, if allowed free reign, would have attracted new players into this market forcing down these huge margins. The weapon that the two dominant players represented by Sargent & Greenleaf and Yale used was a uniquely American invention - patent litigation. Even today patent litigation is one of the largest source of torts in the United State by volume. This is the reason one often sees numerous patent dates embossed onto the cases and movements of many early, pre 1890 time locks. A successful lawsuit initiated by Joseph Hall and resolved by the Supreme Court of the United Sates  in 1889 ultimately dissolved the cross patent agreements of Sargent and Yale.

However before this, these smaller makers had to face the combined force of S&G and Yale who had through cross licensing of their patents and dividing the market between their firms created a near monopoly on the business in 1877. A practice that clearly would be illegal today, but was done before the advent of anti-trust laws in 1890. The two dominant firms would use either this tactic of litigation or that of acquisition of the smaller rival. When a rival time lock was discovered, the combine of S&G and Yale would threaten to sue the bank for patent infringement. Of course an individual bank was in no position to fight the combined might of these companies. As an inducement an offer would be made whereby the bank would 'surrender' the offending time lock and install one of the combine's time locks. at a reduced price. The removed time lock was then destroyed; making these time locks extremely collectible.

The makers represented in the following pages met the fates of either acquisition, litigation or a combination of the two. The most notable and documented that fell to litigation are the Pillard time lock of the New Britain Lock Co., the Holms Electric Time Lock Co., as well as the Edward Stewart Co. Lewis Lillie was sued and settled by assigning the firms patents to Yale. Edward Woolley's fluid time lock was so unique and impractical that it never had a chance. Consolidation continued with or without the patent litigation. Later on dominant players like Mosler bought out Beard Brothers and Bankers Dustproof. The venerable Hall firm and by extension the Consolidated Time Lock Co. fell into bankruptcy in 1927. By the 1930's only Sargent & Greenleaf, Yale, Mosler and Diebold were left standing.

Mosler fell into bankruptcy in 2001 and was absorbed by Diebold. Today, only Diebold and  Sargent & Greenleaf are left. Sargent & Greenleaf the first company to commercially introduce the use of the time lock back in 1874 is still making them today, as well as a few foreign manufacturers. All makers now use less expensive, imported movements primarily from Switzerland.

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